Cyclones and Sanctions

Burma's poverty is not inevitable.

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.

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  • T||

    It's hard to keep an entire country poor without working at it.

  • ||

    But just think how much more damage the cyclone would have done if the junta hadn't crippled the economy!

  • BakedPenguin||

    While I don't agree with the sanctions, there's no particular reason to think that trading with Burma will help engender freedom there anymore than it has in China.

    Our trade with China has helped prop up a near-totalitarian regime. Worse, they have acted as exporters of political brutality, enriching the Sudanese government, among others.

  • fyodor||

    there's no particular reason to think that trading with Burma will help engender freedom there

    I didn't notice Howley saying there was. Only that the Burmese people suffer for the lack of trade.

  • ||

    Most of these Asian dictatorships rely on soldiers from the countryside to clamp down on pro-democracy people from the cities. (Rural people in these countries are poorly educated and so are easier to control.)If increased trade leads to the increased urbanization of Burma, and I think it will, then increasing trade is strategically sound for increasing democracy.

  • ||

    @bakedpenguin: I think the Chinese Communist party is actually in a very awkward, uncomfortable position. The party has maintained its legitimacy with the people by enabling high growth. If (when) that growth slows down, the newly wealthy and empowered Chinese middle class will cease to tolerate the government.

  • BakedPenguin||

    fyodor - I reread it. She mentioned people who claim that Burma must change politically before we should remove sanctions, but didn't talk about the reverse.

    I will talk to you again after completing my reading comprehension course.

    kevin - unfortunately, I think the Chicoms are in a pretty strong place. I would love to be proven wrong.

  • ||

    Kerry, who formerly worked for a publication financed and controlled by Burmese military intellignece (Myanmar Times) seems to argue that more business engagement would benefit the Burmese people. Unfortunately, experience does not support that position. For instance, the military, through its partnership with Chevron and France's Total (as well as other gas export deals) earns $100 million per month, but it books those earnings using the official exchange rate of 6 kyat to the dollar, rather than the market rate of more than 1200 kyat to the dollar, esentially making this income, rightly the property of all Burmese, simply disappear (see http://irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=12110 or http://irrawaddy.org/opinion_story.php?art_id=11834).

    Advocating for better times through business when Burma under the generals is rated the most corrupt and the least economically free in the world seems naive at best. Let's concentrate on saving the lives right now of those that the Burmese junta would prefer to see left to die.

  • ||

    Sanctions have no effect on the behavior of autocrats. They follow an economic/power version of Milton's "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." Even a very poor country can support several thousand autocrats in high style. They have no motive to risk political reform.

    The track record of sanctions/engagement is confusing, I think, because the phenomenon has a bifurcated threshold. The same input can drive the system in opposite directions depending on which side of the threshold the system is on when the input occurs. (Think of the threshold as a hill topped with a sharp ridge. A ball placed even slightly on one side or the other will role down that side without fail.)

    A nation has to reach a certain political and economic threshold before either sanctions or engagement have a political effect. Above that threshold, a countries elite fear sanctions and respond to engagement. Below the threshold, the elite ignore sanctions and exploit engagement. Above the threshold, sanctions and engagement drive the country toward freedom and prosperity. Below it they drive it into the ground.

    I would say that Burma is far below the threshold. Nothing we do economically will help.

  • douglas gray||

    Wonder what would have happened if we had invaded Burma instead of Iraq, to try and create a democracy? Too close to China, that's the problem

  • Bob Goodman||

    But Burma's rulers aren't mere kleptocrats. They could loot the country much more efficiently if they wanted to, but they're true believers that they're experts doing the right thing. And they're crazy! And the people they replaced were nuts too.

  • ||

    Sanctions, embargos and similar penalties seem so pointless to me. I can't help but be reminded of Cuba: we've maintained an embargo against Cuba for fifty years to no avail, but there's no shortage of people who say that if we just keep it up another year or two, then the Castro regime will fall and it'll all be worth it.

    How many years do people have to keep up a failed policy before they'll admit that it has failed, and it's time to try something else? Sanctions just make the common people suffer. Aren't they already suffering enough?

  • ||

    I can think of tons of times when sanctions have failed. Anyone willing to part with an example of when sanctions have worked? Try as I might, I can't think of one, possibly WTO sanctions that I'm not aware of, but that doesn't seem the same thing compared to Cuba, Burma, or Iran.

  • algernon||

    South Africa?

  • ||

    hmm, I don't think Appartheid was ended by the sanctions, it was more propelled by inner forces in the country. The African National Congress fought for 20+ years to get rid of it there. I think it was this uprising that ended it.

    I'm not sure how much of a role the sanctions played in it though, definitely a good suggestion algernon and I'll do some reading on the topic.

  • ||

    How very neo-colonialist of Kerry Howley to tell the Burmese people what is best for them. The people of Burma overwhelmingly support leaders who have called for carrots (engagement) and sticks (sanctions). To be honest, neither sanctions practiced by the West, nor Engagement practiced by Asia have worked. We should admire our political leaders when they respond to the democratically elected Burmese leaders who are trying to rid their society of a cancerous mafia.
    Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe are countries that have a practice of brutalizing their own people on a large scale. One explanation for the continuity of these odious regimes is that they obtain support from their neighbors. Maybe our primary focus should be on removing the support by the neighbors. This engagement argument is a canard for those that want to exploit vulnerable countries by pillaging their resources.

  • Brian||

    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

    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


    .........

    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.

    Huh?

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