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Generals, Gas, Gems and Timber

Is it time for the West to reconsider its stance on Myanmar? As to whether the US-EU sanctions and embargoes levied against the Burmese have had any success is hardly clear – many countries still trade freely with the junta’s repressive regime. China and Thailand refuse to impose sanctions; the…

Is it time for the West to reconsider its stance on Myanmar? As to whether the US-EU sanctions and embargoes levied against the Burmese have had any success is hardly clear – many countries still trade freely with the junta’s repressive regime. China and Thailand refuse to impose sanctions; the Chief of the Indian Armed Forces paid a visit earlier this year to discuss military cooperation; and Russia has agreed to build a nuclear research center including a 10MW light-water reactor in Burma (1). Accusations of corruption, drug trafficking, human right violations, forced labor and torture have been discounted by the junta, while threats of further international isolation have been rebuffed.

Earlier this year, Myanmar accepted a bid by China to construct an oil pipeline from its offshore fields in the Bay of Bengal to mainland China, returning the favor to a highly sought after international ally in the UN Security Council. It was quick to veto in January, along with Russia, a Security Council resolution condemning Myanmar, claiming the country poses no threat to international security. (2)

India has opted for a gradual shift in attitude towards Myanmar, feeling the need to seek Myanmar’s help in countering the many insurgent groups that plague its north-east, where the border with Myanmar provides an escape route. India feels obliged to aid the Myanmarese army by providing arms, adding to the military assistance and supplies the country already receives from China and Russia.

In May, North Korea and Myanmar announced that they were restoring diplomatic ties after 24 years. (3) This is as clear a signal as any that Myanmar has no intentions to sway to the West’s tune. Myanmar is much more resource-endowed than North Korea is, and perhaps consequently less isolated. The US and the EU should recognize the repercussions that entail when enforcing economic sanctions on Myanmar; namely the junta’s urge to exploit its own natural and indigenous resources in unsustainable ways to finance its expenditures, as it has done in the past. Myanmar has 60 percent of the world’s teak resources, and exporting timber illegally is a big source of revenue. (4) The government has been profiting for years from the gem trade by giving out mining concessions, and most of the gem trade is still in the black market.

The US renewed its sanctions, and the junta renewed Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest. Constructive engagement may seem like a ridiculous suggestion, but for better or for worse it will change things from the present stalemate. The EU wishes to have free trade with ASEAN, but the antics of this black sheep in the group are proving to be an impediment. Still, the junta’s notoriety and brutality seem to deter fewer and fewer interested parties from pursuing lucrative economic engagements with such regimes. It is important to realize that Myanmar’s potential gains and geographic proximity to China, India and other Asian nations will weigh in much more in these countries’ consideration of how best to deal with the defiant government. For India, it is the gateway to the ASEAN bloc and a viable source of energy; for Thailand, it is a neighbor whose goods, people and problems spill in easily through its own borders; and for China, it has been a fairly obliging ally.

The West needs perspective on its policy towards Myanmar, and this is certainly not to suggest that the activities of the regime should be condoned. It is clear that the junta continues to reign in impunity – there’s an occasional admonishment by ASEAN, the odd threat to pull out of the ILO if faced with criticism, and the closure of a Red Cross office or two. If the junta perceives neither incentive nor reason to heed the laments of the West, perhaps it is time for a change in strategy by the latter. It is worthwhile to question the efficacy of economic sanctions. Ideally, an option would be to use the cooperation of Myanmar’s neighbors and trading partners like China, Thailand and India in an attempt to pressure the junta to mend its errant ways. But we live in troubled times, and there are more pressing concerns that fuel foreign policy. And in a world of dwindling resources, be it natural gas or timber, is it sensible to allow repressive regimes, or other countries unflinching about compromising their principles, to exploit resource-rich countries?
 Moreover, are the US and the EU themselves blameless and innocent of overlooking similar complaints in countries with which they maintain healthy economic ties?

Source: www.asiaecon.org |



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