Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ten things we can do about Burma

Burma has been under the jackboot of a supremely despotic military junta for almost half a century now, with collapsing institutions, arbitrary imprisonment, widespread torture, organised rapes and killings, and the terrorisation of minority communities including the Chins, the Karen, the Shan and the Rohingyas. The release in November of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from unjust imprisonment was not just a great moment for celebration, it should also make us think more clearly about what the world can do to help Burma achieve reconciliation and build a democratic foundation for the future.

The military generals designed the recent election, the first in twenty years, in a crooked way to ensure that they, or their proxies or cohorts, will stay in power. Most gratuitously, 25 per cent of the seats were reserved for military rulers; strong pro-democracy candidates were barred from participation; opposition leaders and activists were kept in confinement; and criticism of the regime was totally banned in pre-election speeches.

So, what can the world do now? The answer is: A great deal.

First, many analysts of Burmese affairs have called for an international Commission of Enquiry on Burma, possibly led by the United Nations. The case for this is very strong, especially after the manipulated election.

Second, the framework of sanctions and embargos has to be made more effective. General sanctions that hurt the Burmese people (such as restrictions on garment exports from Burma) can be sensibly replaced by those that isolate the military rulers - by targeting their business activities and their financial transactions overseas.

Third, at the top of the list of potentially effective targeted sanctions must be an embargo on the trading of arms and armaments of all kinds.

Fourth, there is a strong political case for considering imposing sanctions on those natural commodities - such as minerals, gems, timber, and oil and gas - that yield huge profits for individuals in the regime.

Fifth, severe financial restrictions and prohibitions imposed on large transactions from Burma can be a well-targeted and effective policy.

Sixth, a ban on foreign travel imposed on the generals at the head of the regime can also be effective.

Seventh, neighbouring countries, particularly China but also Thailand and India - which provide support to the military regime in exchange for their own commercial gains - have a special responsibility. Aside from the doubtful morality of supporting such an oppressive regime, this continued and tacit support may well turn out to be a prudential mistake. The tyrants of Burma will, sooner or later, fall - as all tyrants eventually do. However, the memory of the betrayal of the Burmese people will last a long time, just as the intense anti-Americanism in Latin America today draws on the history of US support for the brutal South and Central American regimes of yesteryear.

Eighth, the Western countries are sharp in rhetoric when denouncing Burma's rulers, but they do not do what is entirely within their power to do - like withdrawing from lucrative Burmese business, and imposing financial sanctions.
This is bad in itself, but it also makes it harder to persuade China, India and Thailand to do the right thing.

Ninth, and most important - there has to be an end to the sense of dejection and hopelessness that is so dominant among the Burmese people. The fight, we have to remember, is for the beginning of democracy in Burma, not for tiny concessions from an entrenched military government.

Finally, in a non-defeatist approach, we have to start thinking about how a post-military government will deal with the culprits of the past. There is a strong case for not threatening bloody revenge but opting instead for the sagacity of offering amnesty in exchange for remorse. Even butchers have to find a "way out" if they are not to go on fighting - and tyrannising - to the bitter end.

With well-targeted policies, carried out with determination and clarity of reasoning, we can make the Burmese leaders withdraw.
The change can come more quickly than most people imagine.

By Amartya Sen Indian economist who was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. (The Nation, Bangkok)

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