Political Economy of Myanmar/Burma Part 2 – what can the international community do?


By Nick Li

In my last article I discussed some of the features of Burmese society that I thought had not received enough emphasis by other commentators. Three key features are: photo_lg_myanmar.jpg

(1)The military dominates the economy, and is large enough to create a powerful "middle-class" constituency for the status quo.

(2)The protests this year were initially economically motivated – only after the brutal crackdown did political demands surface.

(3)The importance of China is overemphasized. India and Thailand are equally important trading partners, and Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia and Japan all have significant investment (and combined imports equal to China).

So what steps can the international community take to alleviate the suffering of the Burmese people? The types of actions available can be categorized, in order of severity under the following:

(1)Military intervention (2)Economic Sanctions (3)Engagement

(1)Military intervention

From my previous posts on Pacifism, it should be obvious where I stand on this issue, though my co-blogger Richard Norman is generally more sympathetic to the idea of liberal interventionism. In the case of Burma there is no immediate humanitarian crisis or ethnic cleansing to justify a UN peace-keeping force, though there is a continuing low-level guerilla war with the ethnic minorities along Burma’s borders. Roland Watson at Dictatorwatch.org gives an argument in favor of intervention back in 2002 and the reasons have not changed much: Houseofcards.jpgThere would be many risks associated with military intervention, the first of which is in the actual conflict. (The irony of an Allied force facing weapons paid for by their own corporations would be hard to overstate.) Still, one can argue that for the people of Burma a decisive confrontation now, even though it would likely involve casualties, is better than perpetual repression. Also, the SPDC would be a less than formidable opponent: – The nation offers sea access. Allied forces could be moved to the area in a matter of days. – Even given the recent weapons shipments, the Burmese military is still poorly armed and directed. – Most importantly, the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw, would prove an easy if not willing opponent. Unlike the Taleban and al Qaida, they have no desire to fight. Countless soldiers are actually young men and boys who have been press-ganged into service. It is likely that at the initiation of the conflict they would throw down their arms, or turn them against the generals. It is essential to note that in the 1990 elections, which the generals invalidated, the vast majority of the armed forces voted for democracy. The Burmese dictatorship, for all its supposed strength, is a house of cards that the slightest foreign military intervention will blow down. Indeed, actual combat many not even be required. As Teddy Roosevelt demonstrated almost one hundred years ago, gunboat diplomacy may be sufficient, in this case to cause the dictators to run and take exile in China. Norman Pratt provides the case against intervention here:

I voted ‘no’. One problem is – who is to carry out the military intervention? To have any hope of doing good the force would need to be overwhelming (5 airborne divisions of ‘blue berets’ perhaps?) China and Russia would veto any serious attempt to topple the Burmese military junta. I’m not against military intervention on principle: UN intervention in the Congo in the 1960’s, and UN/NATO intervention in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s probably prevented far worse disaster, although even in these cases there remains a reasonable doubt: the fog of war always seems to become a veritable pea-souper when predicting what will happen after a military intervention, and even in working out whether there has been an improvement when it’s all over. Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in the world, and consists of 8 very distinct ethnic groups. The army held Burma together at Independence in 1948. The army commander was Aung San, which is one of the reasons why his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi is highly revered. During the early years of independence the only modern organisation in the country was the army. The army may still be all that holds it together: in the elections that Aung San Suu Kyi won, 20 political parties contested the election on platforms of ethnicity, hardly a sign of the development of a healthy democracy. I think perhaps it’s time the Anglo-Saxon ‘club bouncers’ of the global community – I am referring to nation-states here – accepted that the tough act, even when it’s carried through, really doesn’t work anymore in the way it did in the 1940’s (in Burma amongst other places). Like club bouncers everywhere these days – they need sensitivity training. This sensitivity training has always been available from Scandinavian peace institutes. In the 1970’s Johan Galtung of the International Peace Research Institute at Oslo came up with the idea of having organisations that would ‘manage’ regional conflicts. The idea would have been, for example, that a Middle Eastern organisation would have included all the Middle Eastern states including Israel, and the African one would have included South Africa. The rules would have been that your country could belong to only one of these regional institutions. In a less planned way than he envisaged, I think this kind of thing has happened, and has helped make the world a slightly less violent place. Although Myanmar must be one of the most brutal regimes in the world, its neighbours unfortunately don’t see it that way. If China and Thailand imposed tough sanctions alongside other nations, we would, I think, see a fairly instant mellowing of the military regime and a willingness to engage with Myanmar’s politicians. However, on another front, for a few dollars more we could probably get a really powerful regional intervention force in Darfur, where the African troops are prepared to do the fighting, and where the government of Sudan itself recognises, at last, that it could do better and wants their help.

The defence talk website has an interesting thread speculating on the military aspect of intervention. But obviously this is sheer fantasy, with the no country possessing a compelling strategic interest to act unilaterally. While a likely Chinese veto at the UN is an issue for concerted action by the security council, it is highly unlikely that such action would take the form of military intervention anyway since Burma is neither threatening its neighbors nor committing genocide on the scale that commands international attention.


Many Western countries have strengthened sanctions already in place against the regime, including Canada and the US. Canada has promised to impose the toughest sanctions in the world, including a ban all imports of any kind and limit exports only to humanitarian supplies (only $139,000 of mainly medical supplies last year). The EU sanctions regime is significantly weaker than Canada or the US, as the trade statistics show. However, it appears that the EU is also strengthening its sanctions regime in response to the recent protests and crackdown and has promised to restrict certain imports. All of these countries have policies especially targeted at the regime, such as bans on exports of armaments, visa bans for members and affiliates of the regime, and freezing assets of individuals connected with the Burmese state. They also have bans on new investment in Burma. But some argue that they do not go far enough. The sanctions regime against South Africa has often been cited as one of the few cases where sanctions were effective in bringing about political change (though this claim is disputed – Phillip Levy has argued that economic sanctions had a limited economic effect, and that the fall of communism was a bigger factor in ending apartheid). One of the cornerstones of this sanctions regime was divestment on a large scale, leading to significant capital flight. No one so far has been talking about divestment from Burma – the NDP opposition in Canada has criticized the government for failing to consider it, even though Canada does not have much direct investment. Total SA of France has major operations in Burma, and has defend its continued presence (despite no new investments since 1998) by stating that any any "forced withdrawal" would simply clear the way for another company to step into its place. logo_total.gifWhile it is easy to criticize firms like Total SA for continuing to do business with Burma, I’m afraid to admit that they probably have a point – another company will step right in, probably from natural gas hungry giants like India or China. Leon Hadar at the Cato Institute makes a strong case for how US sanctions have done little to hurt the regime, and how foreign investments like the joint Unocal-Total offshore gas development has delivered concrete benefits to local communities. The human cost of more comprehensive sanctions can be heavy, as critics of Iraqi sanctions have argued . Indeed, the fact that all of the important trading partners continue to trade and invest heavily in Burma makes economic sanctions by the West little more than an attempt to soothe our collective conscience by providing a symbolic condemnation. One could argue that Western sanctions against South Africa had more potential to be effective, as South Africa was already diplomatically and economically isolated by its strongly anti-colonial neighbors, the anti-colonial non-aligned movement, and the communist block. Burma has no such problems.


An important recent development is the refusal of ASEAN leaders to consider sanctions at a recent summit in Singapore. From Voice of Asia news : logo-asean.gif

Some Southeast Asian leaders gathering for a summit in Singapore say they do not support sanctions against Burma following the military government’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. VOA’s Luis Ramirez reports from Singapore, where leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, are preparing to adopt a charter this week. Leaders of ASEAN are preparing to sign a charter for the 40-year-old organization that among other things calls for its ten members not to interfere in one another’s internal affairs. Following the Burmese military government’s bloody crackdown on unarmed demonstrators in September and the massive arrests of dissidents, ASEAN issued a statement expressing revulsion at Burma’s actions. It is expected to issue a rebuke of Burma’s leaders this week at the summit. However, leaders assembling here Sunday indicated that is as far as the grouping is willing to go. Laos and Cambodia, which have in the past stated their opposition to getting tough on Burma, told reporters they denounce the sanctions imposed by the United States and other western nations. Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, told a U.S. television network (CNBC) his nation, which has turned up pressure on Burma since the crackdown, also opposes sanctions. "Nobody in Asia supports that. First of all, Myanmar wants to isolate itself," Lee said. "They have themselves closed their doors and we have been trying to get them to open up. So, pushing on this door to close it is not going to cause them grief. Certainly (it’s) not going to cause the leaders grief. Secondly, you don’t control all the doors." Nations such as China and India, which have strong trade ties with ASEAN, oppose sanctions. Leaders here note that the two nations would continue to do business with Burma regardless of who else boycotts the country. The United States Senate on Friday passed a resolution calling on ASEAN to suspend Burma from the organization. Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong on Sunday rejected that call, saying other nations should allow ASEAN – as he put it – "some democracy of ideas" and let the region make its own decisions. ASEAN comprises Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma.

The fact that democracies like Indonesia and India show little interest in retarding economic development to promote political is hardly surprising – these are countries that have always strongly upheld the principle of national sovereignty and non-interference with domestic affairs, thanks to their anti-colonial struggles. The leaders of the ASEAN countries and China and India may believe that a policy of openness and engagement is likely to be most beneficial to the Burmese people and the eventual improvement of human rights in Burma, or they may be engaging in simple economic self-interest (more likely for those that have no particular interest in human rights in their own countries when they conflict with other objectives). In either case, unless they can be convinced to participate in a comprehensive international sanctions regime it is unlikely that economic sanctions will have any effect. And the ability of the US or EU to convince China or India (or even little Singapore) to do anything is clearly very limited, since our own economic interests are so deeply interwoven with theirs. What leverage could we possibly have? I am obviously very pessimistic about the possibility of positive action here. All things considered, a policy of economic engagement seems like the most reasonable course of action, backed up with strong targeted political sanctions. These will be largely symbolic gestures like the ban on travel for junta leaders, exclusion from international events and summits (Beijing Olympics in 2008 anyone?), asset freezes, and bans on military exports and cooperation. With all due deference to arguments made by Amartya Sen and others, I am inclined to think that when considering Burma, or China, or even India, promoting human rights should be secondary to economic development – when people are rich enough, they will begin to put a higher priority on things like free speech, multi-party elections and an independent judiciary and will begin to value those things for other people as well. In a future article, I hope to review some of the literature in development and political economy that explores the causality between democracy, human rights, and economic development since this is a topic that should be of interest to the readership of this blog. – Nick

4 thoughts on “Political Economy of Myanmar/Burma Part 2 – what can the international community do?

  1. “I’m not sure what particular GDP/capita figure he used (what year) since Argentina was number 4 in the world in that category at the turn of the century – I’m guessing he’s using a more recent figure.”

    Perhaps median GDP per capita is a more useful figure? My understanding is that wealth in early 20th century Argentina was distributed relatively inequitably.

    The other possible explanation that comes to mind is that, before attaining the level of Argentina’s GDP per capita in 1990, democracy in any country was under threat. Figures contained in Tooze’s compelling _The Wages of Destruction,_ for instance, suggest that virtually every country in Europe except perhaps for the United Kingdom was well below that level, and as late as the 1960s and 1970s the OAS in France, the right-wing cabals in Italy, and the Francoists in Spain posed serious threats to democracy in those states.

  2. I believe the argument (and the empirical research backing it up) is due to NYU political scientist Adam Przeworski (“Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990”), who found that no country with a GDP per capita above that of Argentina has ever reverted out of democracy (as opposed to numerous countries with GDP/capita below that of Argentina that have frequently entered into and out of democracy). I’m not sure what particular GDP/capita figure he used (what year) since Argentina was number 4 in the world in that category at the turn of the century – I’m guessing he’s using a more recent figure.

  3. Didn’t Fareed Zakaria suggest that stable democracies can only evolve in countries where GDP per capita exceeds a threshold of three thousand to six thousands US dollars? This doesn’t take into consideration things like Gini indexes–Equatorial Guinea might have surpassed this indice long ago, but the Nguema clan continues to dominate–but this sounds similar to what you’re arguing, Nicholas.

  4. Hi Nick

    The same old mess n’est ce pas? We (in the west) scratch our heads and wonder how we could convert places like Myanmar into something — nicer. But you rightly question whether we really understand the processes that lead to and correct state failure. If we cannot put the current mess into a larger perspective, we risk that our interventions (military or otherwise) will just end up making things worse.

    Will economic growth cure all? The Chinese sure hope so. I look forward to your future posts on this. But I am less optimistic. Opening up the private sector for foreign investment may be a necessary condition for nation building, but I doubt if it is sufficient in itself. The Czech experience is interesting here. I would argue that the underlying problem is more about the relationship between models of good governance and good politics. Unfortunately, we don’t have a good grasp of either idea — let alone the relationship between them. Sufficient to say here that no politician anywhere (that I know of) has been elected on a promise of huge investments of public money into judicial training and legislative drafting.

    One thing is clear — the models that we peddle in the developing world are on the one hand, overly complex and on the other overly parochial. They are too complex because they impose a set of institutions that require ongoing large investment and overcoming a steep learning curve to function. They are too parochial because they impose our values — not necessarily local ones. When the models fail, dictators are glad to move in and supply something simpler.

Comments are closed.