The Future of Myanmar Without Sanctions

There is a lot of conjecture lately about the efficacy of lifting Western imposed economic sanctions and engaging with the Burmese Junta. Especially relevant in many conversations is whether or not Aung San Suu Kyi should have any effect on the matter. The bigger question seems to be about the direction of action she will take, along with the National League for Democracy (NLD). At the heart of the problem is a military led government who has thumbed its nose at the West for decades. Conventional wisdom indicates that it will continue to do so no matter what Aung San Suu Kyi does.

The western media likes to play up the idea that Myanmar’s government is more brutal and disgusting than any other on earth except for Iran. The ironic truth with both Myanmar and Iran is that the people of both nations love everything about the West but their governments have chosen not to fall under the influence of economic colonization of the World Bank, IMF, and all of the other Western economic schemes that renders poor nations in debt to the West, thereby opening their lands for “development” and “civil society” as western corporations plunder every available natural resources at bargain basement prices. The governments of Myanmar and Iran do business their own way. It looks like there will be few opportunities for Western influence in Myanmar and no matter how much the Western powers try, they may never play an important role in the economic viability of Myanmar.

Myanmar’s military led government doesn’t need the West and its predatory habits of in-debting poor nations into submission as a way to access and plunder its natural resources. In fact, the current rulers of Myanmar are definitely brutal and disgusting. They have proven to be pretty good at colonizing their own country and selfishly stealing all of the wealth gained from selling Myanmar’s resources. While ideals like freedom and democracy, which are both as flexible as a rubber band when it comes to the support from the West (think of the West’s reactions to current events in Libya and Bahrain as way to see the flexibility) are inspiring motivators to use in negotiations with governments who care about such things, in Myanmar, they mean nothing to the ruling elite. Unfortunately, the West has no other cards to play unless they play the military card. However, it’s unlikely the West will dare venture back into military intervention on China’s southern doorstep.

It’s been a foregone conclusion that The Western powers have nothing to teach Suu Kyi as well. She has given all she has to her people in spite of the West’s support, not because of it. She is their one example and role model that teaches them what freedom and democracy are. The Burmese certainly don’t need the West’s charade of supporting Suu Kyi on principle either because the West has no principle to stand on. With confounding hypocrisy the West supports dictators around the world for political and economic reasons when it suits their economic interests. That’s it. If there was any real dedication by the West at supporting freedom and democracy then they would have supported the decision of the Palestinian people when they voted for the terrorist government of Hamas as their chosen government in what was, by all accounts, a very clean election.

The West knows that it is helpless when it comes to Myanmar and they are losing, or have lost, Myanmar economically and strategically. The problem facing the West is that Aung San Suu Kyi reminds them of what they are not – principled. She is their sole access to a beleaguered nation under occupation by its own flesh and blood. The West supports her in the name of supporting freedom and democracy – but they also know that the worn out ruse is not working economically. So then, it truly looks like the West will soon abandon Suu Kyi incrementally in favor of gaining economic access to Myanmar’s resources. Even so, with China, India, Thailand and Vietnam on the margins of Myanmar, there’s no incentive in any way for the current rulers of Myanmar to deal with Western powers. And everyone, especially the rulers of Myanmar, knows it. Sadly, the West will put on a seriousness display of unwavering support for Aung San Suu Kyi while they slyly stack the deck and deal the cards to lifting sanctions. When that happens, both Suu Kyi and NLD will be more isolated. They will be more economically and politically irrelevant than they already are in this oppressed nation of 56 million.

In the end, if sanctions are lifted and the West gets into Myanmar western companies and politicians will herald in a new era of cooperation and development with Myanmar’s next elected government. NGO’s will run amok in Burma under the guise of Civil Society (as they have been doing in Cambodia for two decades) colonizing the Burmese people with low wage jobs and cobbling the already impoverished people with dependence on all kinds of relief and aid. The example to go by for this sits right on the border of Burma in Thailand near the town of Mae Sot. Garment factories use Burmese refugees and migrant Burmese workers to make ladies undergarments to be sold in major U.S. department stores such as J.C. Penney. Some NGO workers in the area act as interlocutors (think labor contractors) between the factories and the workers. The Burmese workers are paid paltry sums and work under some of the most abusive sweatshop conditions in the world. They are seen as people having no status. They can’t legally move into Thailand and they can’t go home to Burma. The justification of the NGO worker’s is that at least they have wages to live on. True. And J.C. Penney makes a killing with selling bras and panties to unsuspecting women in the United States.

Yes, if the West one day gets itself into Burma, hundreds if not thousands of NGO workers will drive around in SUV’s saving the Burmese and they will cash fat paychecks while they constantly raise money from donors and buy up prime property in Rangoon, Nap Yi Daw and Pyin Oo Lwin and Ngapoli Beach. Western corporations will set up shop and Coca Cola will eventually have a bottling plant somewhere on the outskirts of Mandalay near the Trans Asian rail lines and highways currently being built across South East Asia. Factories will be built and Burmese people will work long hours under exploitative conditions as CNN and BBC talking heads marvel at the rebirth of Myanmar and free market policies in the new South East Asia. All of this is unlikely to happen though because China, Thailand, Japan, now India, and other Asian corporations are already in place in Burma. Of course, Chevron and Total have been in Burma for years since they are exceptions to the sanctions mandate placed on Burma by the West. Yes, the West’s hypocrisy is sometimes so vile one can drive a car with it.

Ultimately, a utopian outcome on the horizon for the people of Myanmar has all but vanished. Poverty will persist for the majority of Myanmar’s people as the ruling elite will cater to transnational corporations with or without sanctions. Dissent of any kind will be crushed and persist as it has for decades past. The only real question is who, in the end, will be cashing in on Myanmar’s bountiful natural resources? With or without freedom and democracy the people of Myanmar should keep a stern eye on their western motives. They are facing a lose-lose situation with the lifting of economic sanctions and cooperation of any kind with the current so-called government. Any person with a heart would call Myanmar’s rulers what they really are – tyrannical and homicidal monsters. Yet since the West really hasn’t shown the world a decidedly better face either, what, in the end, will change in Burma?

Ko Tha Dja is an educator and writer who lived in Burma for five years. His collection of stories about his time in Burma is forthcoming. Now residing in Vientiane, Lao PDR, he can be reached via his personal blog at Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.