In the mid 1950s, denizens of Burma, Thailand, and South Korea were about equally wealthy, but one nation seemed especially likely to prosper. In contrast to the others, Burma was already an exporter of rice and oil, had a relatively high literacy rate, and seemed well on its way toward a parliamentary system of government. It was full of teak, gems, and rich soil. As David Steinberg points out in Burma: The State of Myanmar, any observer “would have pointed to Burma as the potential economic and political leader of the three.” War-torn, resource-poor South Korea “would not have been a contender in anyone’s imagination.” In 2006, South Korea’s GNP per capita was $24,500; Burma’s was $1,800.
Look closely enough at the pictures of destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis, and you begin to realize how very little there was to destroy. There, a bamboo house in shambles; here, a thatch roof torn off; there, a dirt road obscured by scattered palm fronds. When the cyclone struck, tens of thousands of people had no solid structure to cling to, and the cyclone’s ghastly death toll is as much a function of the country’s poverty as is the storm’s strength. Had the same cyclone hit the prosperous Burma that might have been, the death toll would have been far less dramatic.
The South Korea comparison matters because Burmese poverty is so often treated as an inevitability rather than a byproduct of bad governance. The imprisonment of activist Aung San Suu Kyi is well known and roundly denounced; the junta’s punishing monetary policy, which maintains an official exchange rate 200 times lower than the market rate in order to benefit state-owned businesses, is less often noted. Burma’s banking system is barely functional, and the government tightly controls trade. According to the Progressive Policy Institute, Burmese rice exports have dropped by 99 percent since 1950. The junta says it is committed to a market-oriented economy, but it has reversed most of the gestures it has made in that direction.
No one is nominating Than Shwe, Burma's military leader, for Administrator of the Year, and it’s not news that the junta has been the cause of suffering. But Burma’s poverty, and the deaths it causes in the best of monsoon seasons, is at the center of a significant debate about the way the West should approach Myanmar. The most extreme advocates of Burmese sanctions, among them Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), tend to assume that the lives of Burmese people cannot improve without regime change. Economic development is being held hostage to political reform, but there is little reason to expect political reform any time soon.
“I am new to work on Burma, but in my eight weeks of involvement to date I am finding the world of Burma advocacy rigid and doctrinal,” writes Joel Charny, Vice President for Policy at Refugees International, on the organization’s blog. “There is just one overarching narrative: the struggle of the Burmese democracy movement, led by Nobel Peace Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, against the repressive Burmese generals.”
Based on the assumption that Burma must change politically before it can engage economically, American Burma activists support sanctions and isolation, and many are skeptical of independent humanitarian work. “The Burma solidarity adherents often evoke ‘the courageous Burmese people’ to support the aid embargo,” Charny continues. “This is an easy rhetorical device, and may sound plausible, but it is based on discussions with a narrow set of political actors, most of them outside the country.”
On the flip side, development advocates claim that sanctions and aid restrictions have had no discernible benefit for the Burmese, the majority of whom make less than $200 a year. The National League for Democracy is weak and disorganized, and so dependent on Suu Kyi that it seems unable to operate when she is under house arrest. Our refusal to trade with the Burmese has brought democracy no closer to realization.
Sanctions are a sacrifice we make on behalf of other people; we have volunteered the Burmese to undergo painful economic deprivation in the hope that poverty will drive them to a better future. It hasn't worked, whether because Burma's neighbors have rejected the U.S. approach or because the United States never had much economic leverage in the first place. An alternative approach, one that does not assume the Burmese people’s assent in a scheme to impoverish them, involves coaxing the regime toward basic economic reforms that would at least allow Burma’s rice farmers to move out of their bamboo-and-thatch homes in preparation for the next monsoon season.
Cyclone Nargis is no longer just a natural disaster, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared on May 17th as the junta continued to refuse to allow food and medical supplies to reach victims: “It is being made into a man-made catastrophe.” But Cyclone Nargis was a “man-made catastrophe” the moment the first shoddily built shack was swept out to sea. Burma is poor because it has been made so, and the military has been isolating and impoverishing the country for 45 years now. Why are we helping them?
Kerry Howley is a reason senior editor.