Do the Burmese Support Sanctions?

In response to my brief article on Burmese poverty, a few people have emailed to explain that "The Burmese People" "overwhelmingly support" the US policy of comprehensive sanctions against Burma imposed by Clinton's executive order in May 1997. We know this because Burma voted overwhelmingly for Suu Kyi in 1990, and Suu Kyi came to support comprehensive sanctions.

This is bizarre. In 1990, the Burmese were asked to choose between a viable pro-democracy party and the status quo. (There were many pro-democracy parties but none with the national appeal of Suu Kyi's NLD.) Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a significant majority of seats, which indicates that the significant majority of Burmese were tired of living under a military dictatorship. The U.S. had not yet imposed comprehensive sanctions at this point. But even if they had been a prominent topic of debate, it would be strange to assume that a vote for Suu Kyi's party were a vote for sanctions rather than a vote for regime change. It's as if Americans were asked to choose between McCain and Kim Jong-il, and every voter who went for McCain was then assumed to support a gas-tax holiday.

I don't want to make too much of my personal experience, but I found that near-universal admiration for Suu Kyi in Rangoon existed alongside some gentle criticism of the NLD's disorganization and general ineffectiveness. You might, in conversations with actual Burmese people, find that they are capable of both supporting Suu Kyi and disagreeing with her on various things. But that would require envisioning them as rational individuals rather than as a nebulous glop of misery.

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  • Naga Sadow||

    I believe there was a good quote about something like this. "For the people, in spite of the people".

  • Naga Sadow||

    Now I remember where the quote came from. Slogan used by Ataturk during his attempts to modernize Turkey in the 20's.

  • NP||

    But that would require envisioning them as rational individuals rather than as a nebulous glop of misery.

    This is a false dichotomy. Might that have been rational individuals who do support comprehensive sanctions like Suu Kyi vs. those who do not? Of course, that would require envisioning these dissenters as rational individuals rather than as a nebulous glop of irrationality.

    You did make a good point, Kerry. Pity that you had to ruin it by not extending the same level of scrutiny to those who may disagree with you on occasion.

  • Ironic||

    "It's as if Americans were asked to choose between McCain and Kim Jong-il, and every voter who went for McCain was then assumed to support a gas-tax holiday."

    That is the choice we will have in November.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Given that sanctions are designed to put pressure on the regime via the suffering of the Burmese people, it seems there would be many who would not support those sanctions. Suu Kyi, of course, has a much different perspective on the issue...

  • ||

    NP,

    What are you talking about? The argument is that Burmese opinion is not monolithic. Nowhere do I claim that everyone opposes sanctions.

  • modd||

    Made a trip to Burma a few years back staying very much on the tourist beaten track. But it is always heartening to put money in the hands of ordinary citizens and to see that ordinary citizens know how to get around the limits of gov't internet censorship as one internet service got us to our e-mail no problem. In Burma nearly every website is blocked: yahoo, hotmail, etc.

    Never once was I treated like a scab for breaking the embargo which is essentially what I was doing. Kerry's argument is the same argument that Reason writer's consistently apply to Cuba, Venezuela, China, etc. Trade wins out over embargoes.

  • NP||

    Kerry,

    I think we both would agree that viewing any single group not as rational individuals but as "a nebulous glop of misery" would be ipso facto irrational, not to mention condescending. Now, you said a few people e-mailed you claiming that the Burmese actually support American sanctions against their country because "Burma voted overwhelmingly for Suu Kyi in 1990, and Suu Kyi came to support comprehensive sanctions," and you seemed to think these individuals are guilty of the "glop of misery" offense.

    And you know what, if this is all they've got I'd say your criticism is fair, but let me play their devil's advocate for a moment. As already noted, the Burmese overwhelmingly support Suu Kyi--this despite their lack of communication tools due to the junta's iron hand (which you yourself often mention). So, they might argue, Suu Kyi serves her fellow Burmese not only as a moral authority but also as an informational source. Couple this with the fact that, their limited options notwithstanding, humanitarian organizations are still allowed to operate on Burmese soil (correct me if I'm wrong), and it shouldn't be a surprise if the majority of the Burmese people do support sanctions as a rebuke to the junta. So I wouldn't accuse your e-mail pals of irrationality if they only failed to make these points, which was the point of my previous post.

  • Jorgen||

    "This is a false dichotomy. Might that have been rational individuals who do support comprehensive sanctions like Suu Kyi vs. those who do not? Of course, that would require envisioning these dissenters as rational individuals rather than as a nebulous glop of irrationality."

    The point is that overwhelming favor of Suu Kyi doesn't imply support for sanctions. Sure, 80% of the rational individuals within Burma may support sanctions, but we have no evidence that that is true. There are plenty of reasons that some people in Burma might support sanctions, but no evidence that they do.

  • NP||

    Jorgen,

    I guess I'm not being very clear today. By "dissenters" I meant not the Burmese people who are opposed to the junta, but those people over here who make the argument that their Burmese brethren do support sanctions. I actually agree with Kerry that Burmese opinion is not monolithic; I only meant to question her on whether these dissenters do in fact see the Burmese as "a nebulous glop of misery," which is why I made the above reply.

  • ||

    that's so hot when you say "nebulous glop of misery"

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