Story Time in Myanmar


In today's Washington Post, Morton Abramowitz and Jonathan Kolieb note the smashing success of sanctions against Myanmar:

Western economic sanctions, international diplomatic pressure and "engagement" with the ruling junta by its Asian neighbors have produced scant progress. Given the military's deep stake in the economy, it is unlikely to relinquish power. Rebellion is improbable, and regime change by outside forces is not an option….Meanwhile, Burma's 52 million people endure increasingly appalling conditions…

There is, of course, peril in a humanitarian approach. Millions of aid dollars may well be diverted by the junta, and the flow of aid might convince the government that it need not reform. Nor can we be sure the government would accept such a program. Cooperation with the regime, in any event, will be patchy—the junta has long placed onerous restrictions on aid agencies already there. But cooperation must be pursued, as there is no possibility of working on a large scale inside Burma without such efforts.

Western officials and politicians may bridle at this approach. Certainly, vigilance is required to minimize the hazards of working in Burma. But risk is unavoidable, and the costs of inaction—measured in mortality, drug addiction and infection rates—loom larger.

Actually, there is no way to weigh the costs and benefits here with even the slightest suggestion of accuracy. Simply asserting that one risk "looms larger" than another doesn't take us very far. Myanmar is a statistical black hole; you cannot know whether foreign aid is affecting public health in any significant way, and you certainly cannot know whether aid is further entrenching the regime (and extending the duration of military rule). Anyone who claims that an uptick in aid will worsen the Myanmar situation is just guessing; as are Abramowitz and Kolieb, who claim it will help.

That's not an argument against aid, but an argument against extending aid while assuring taxpayers that their money will be well spent. It's a gamble, and the description Abramowitz and Kolie give of Myanmar's horrific situation could as easily be marshaled as evidence by anti-aid types.

The only thing the U.S. can do to reliably help people in Myanmar is to get them out of Myanmar. Issue more visas, and lots of them. Here's an even less expensive idea: Stop subsidizing Myanmar's brutal drug war