YANGON — It is time the West ended it sanctions against Myanmar, whether or not the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Burmese exile groups agree. This is not to imply that the recent elections were anything other than rigged, or deny that the regime remains ruthless, corrupt and incompetent. But sanctions are neither in the interests of the West nor of the majority of Burmese for whom livelihood issues are the dominant concern.
Short of an attempt at a people power revolution, which most likely would be greeted by the military with the same brutality as in 1988 and 2007, a strategy of persistence and patience is the only way forward.
It is clear that sanctions have not only failed to achieve their aims, they could well have made the situation worse by increasing the anti-Western paranoia of the military leader Than Shwe, providing the regime with a useful enemy, and increasing the influence of neighboring states, notably China, which have scant regard for democracy or are driven entirely by commercial interests.
The failure of sanctions has underscored the decline of Western influence in this region. Travel sanctions against the families of Burmese generals have deprived them of Western education and contacts. Trade sanctions, which may have had some initial impact, are now easily avoided. The lack of foreign investment — other than in resources — is more the result of economic mismanagement than of sanctions.
There are a number of additional reasons that sanctions should be ended now. Cracks are appearing in the authoritarian structure. The elections, however fraudulent, gave an opportunity for opposition voices to be heard. The boycott by Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy may have made sense. But it is clear that respect for her courage and principles is tempered by widespread criticism of her stubbornness and apparent concern more for constitutional issues than social and economic ones. That she would easily win a free and fair election is barely relevant to the actual situation here.
The new constitution, which takes effect next year, devolves very little power away from the executive to the legislative branch. But at least there may be some debate and slightly more transparency. Optimists also believe that once some generals take off their uniforms and become ministers they will be freer to make policies than they are in the current system, under which almost nothing happens without approval by the 10 generals in charge. Civil society organizations have also emerged partly as a result of government failings at the time of the 2008 Nargis cyclone catastrophe.
Optimists see positive developments in the inclusion of some businessmen in the legislative assemblies . Although they are seen as regime proxies — no substantial business can exist without connections to the generals — some of them understand why the current system is incapable of generating wealth for the people. Economic reforms like ending a multi-tier exchange rate and making private investment less subject to official whims, are a possibility.
Reform would be promoted if institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank were able to lend here. This country currently lacks even an official government budget. The proceeds of booming gas and other resource exports have gone into building the extravagant new capital, Naypyidaw, and into the dozens of gaudy mansions that have sprouted in the posher suburbs of Yangon while the densely populated downtown deteriorates.
Involvement by international organizations might also help divert money from dams designed to sell power to China to irrigation and electrification for the nation’s rural majority. The Burmese could also use help combating malnutrition, in a country that was once the world’s largest rice exporter.
It is important to try to engage now with the less obstinate members of the ruling elite. The regime is gaining added confidence from the prospect of additional revenue from new offshore gas developments. Meanwhile, Than Shwe is 77 and a succession of some sort is likely within a decade. There is at least the chance that the sons and daughters of generals, and middle-ranking officers, see their own survival and prosperity linked to a gradual shift to civilian rule and a more open market economy.
It is hard for those who claim to carry the flag of Burmese nationalism not to know just how far their country has fallen behind not just Thailand but now China, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Do not imagine that engagement will be anything other than a slow and frustrating process. Significant progress on the constitutional front is unlikely until social and economic issues have been addressed. But Myanmar is just as capable of fundamental reform as were Indonesia and Vietnam.
Engagement does not mean keeping quiet about human rights abuses. The more contact Myanmar has with the outside world — the more businessmen, academics, artists, politicians, journalists and tourists who visit — the stronger will be the impetus for change.