Since 1988, the people of Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation also known as Burma, have suffered under the leadership of a repressive military junta. The group, which has shown it will stop at nothing to retain power, exhibits such isolationist tendencies that it relocated the country’s capital from Rangoon to a remote jungle construction site called Naypyidaw (Pepper, 2006).
Reports of human rights abuses in Myanmar are rampant. The current regime has aggressively oppressed and relocated ethnic minorities, such as the Karens, and many minority groups have retreated into the dangerous and unsafe conditions of Myanmar’s jungles rather than face the dangers of the oppressive regime (Pepper, 2006).
The ruling junta in Myanmar also has aggressively suppressed political dissidence and has essentially eliminated the country’s democratic processes. The last free presidential elections were held in Myanmar in 1990, and after the main opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi prevailed, the junta refused to relinquish power (Shea, 2006). Further, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent many of the succeeding years under house arrest and the threat of assassination, which was almost realized in a brazen attack linked to the government in 2003 (World Factbook, 2006).
The current conditions in Myanmar not only force residents to live in fear, but also have brought about economic sanctions and reductions in foreign investment that have hurt the population’s standard of living. The situation in Myanmar has received global attention, but bringing political and human rights reforms to this rogue nation has proven difficult. Arguably, progress has been most hampered by the following three factors:
China and Russia have discouraged action by the United Nations because of economic interests in Myanmar.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, despite demonstrating the potential to influence Myanmar, has adopted a policy of non-interference.
Government and non-government entities persist with the inaccurate belief that the ruling junta does not care about sanctions.
In the end, there may be no easy solution to the Myanmar crisis. But if political and human rights reforms are ever to occur, sanctions and influence from Myanmar’s neighbors are the most likely change agents.
Major nations undermine UN efforts
One might expect the United Nations to play a critical role in encouraging democracy and human rights reforms in Myanmar, as these are core components of the UN mission. and, in fact, the UN has made recent attempts to encourage reforms in Myanmar.
In 2006, the United States brought Myanmar in front of the UN Security Council for its record of human rights abuses, including repressing minorities, and Security Council members voted to put Myanmar on its permanent agenda, which is a first step toward sanctions (Shea, 2006). The U.S. And the European Union currently have trade sanctions against Myanmar and there was certainly logic to asking the UN Security Council to take some action that could lead toward global sanctions (Pepper, 2006). In the six years since the UN assigned human rights inspectors to monitor the situation in Myanmar, they have never once been allowed into the country (UN: States must cooperate, 2006). Clearly, Myanmar has thumbed its nose at the UN, and not without reason.
In the end, it will prove difficult for the UN to take any harsh stances on Myanmar because two important Security Council members, China and Russia, have large financial interests in Myanmar. China currently does a billion dollars a year in trade with Myanmar and other nations, such as Russia, India, Thailand and South Korea have been active in business ventures in Myanmar (Pepper, 2006). As just one example, China, India and South Korea have all been active in a plan to develop natural gas fields off the coast of Myanmar (Pepper, 2006).
In fact, it was their own economic interests that led China and Russia to vigorously oppose placing Myanmar on the UN Security Council’s permanent agenda, even though Myanmar has never allowed UN human rights inspectors into the country, and has a terrible record on human rights and democracy. By using economic interests to turn a blind eye toward abuses in Myanmar, China and Russia are financing repression and human rights abuses in Myanmar, according to Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group, (Burma: UN must act, 2006).
Regrettably, as long as China and Russia sit on the UN Security Council and as long as they have economic interests in Myanmar, it will be difficult for the UN to be a driving factor for change in Myanmar (Myanmar: Sanctions, 2004). The real hope is that China and Russia may one day realize that their current positions are somewhat short-sighted. After all, a more politically and economically stable Myanmar may prove to be a better economic partner. This is a logical philosophical leap that China and Russia may one day make, but, for now, it does not appear to be in the cards.
Despite strength, ASEAN takes weak approach
While it is questionable whether the United Nations may be able to use sanctions to drive progress in Myanmar, due largely to certain members’ divergent interests, one might expect Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors to wield some influence. Indeed, groups such as the European Union have urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, to become more involved in encouraging democratization and human rights reform (EU demands Myanmar, 2006).
Historically, ASEAN has taken a disappointingly weak approach toward encouraging change in Myanmar. The member nations, which include Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, have taken such a hands-off approach that even after the blatant assassination attempt on Aung San Suu Kyi in 2003, ASEAN only issued a short statement encouraging Myanmar’s government to find the parties responsible, and saying that ASEAN was encouraged by the junta’s stated commitments to reform (Excerpts from, 2003).
ASEAN is well within its rights to argue that it is not the organization’s role to get involved in Myanmar’s internal affairs, as offensive as they might be. In fact, a group of ground rules agreed to by ASEAN nations in 1976 states specifically that member nations agree to not get involved in the internal affairs of other member nations (ASEAN Web, 2006). The group, really, is more about promoting economic cooperation and opportunity.
However, ASEAN’s stake in a stable Myanmar, from an economic perspective, is considerable. Despite its attractive economic resources, such as natural gas, Myanmar still has the lowest per capita income of any member nation and the highest inflation (Selected ASEAN macroeconomic, 2005). Plus, Myanmar has seen foreign direct investments plummet by half in the past 10 years, despite interest from powerful countries such as China, Russia and India (Foreign direct investment, 2005). Finally, Myanmar’s black market economy is reportedly huge – perhaps as large as its reported economy – which makes Myanmar an unreliable economic partner (World Factbook, 2006). In short, if it is the role of ASEAN to promote economic cooperation and opportunity, the organization should consider that Myanmar is giving the region a black eye, perhaps suppressing trade and foreign investment.
Some experts believe that Myanmar’s ruling junta has no desire to see the nation portrayed as an economic liability, and that, in fact, the junta hopes that through economic improvement it can reduce some of the calls for political reform (Myanmar: The Military, 2001). This is a point of pain that ASEAN can use to influence Myanmar and help it make economic progress.
And ASEAN has demonstrated in recent history that the organization can influence Myanmar. ASEAN rotates its chairmanship each year, so every member nation gets a turn. In 2006, Myanmar was to have its turn at chair, but ASEAN member nations spoke out against the notion – as did non-ASEAN nations – and Myanmar elected to take a pass, sparing ASEAN from a political embarrassment (ASEAN expects, 2005 and Myanmar: Sanctions, 2004).
And, on other isolated occasions, ASEAN member nations have used the group to influence actions in Myanmar. For example, in order to even gain admission to ASEAN, Myanmar first had to allow for the repatriation of thousands of Muslims to pacify Malaysia and Indonesia, and then implement changes to its foreign investment policies to appease Singapore (Challenges to Democratization, 2001).
ASEAN may yet prove a powerful force for encouraging democratic and human rights reforms in Myanmar. Historically, the group has reacted mostly with indifference to the conditions in Myanmar, hiding behind the principle of non-interference. However, as ASEAN, which has a mission primarily based on economic assistance, continues to realize that Myanmar is damaging the economy of the region, we may find that ASEAN becomes more of a power broker in encouraging political changes in Myanmar.
Sanctions can work in Myanmar
Some experts claim that debates over UN and ASEAN inaction are mostly academic, as Myanmar’s ruling junta is so isolationist that it does not care about sanctions (Myanmar: Sanctions, 2004). The problem with this theory is that it does not always hold up to scrutiny. Myanmar has sent mixed messages that suggest, at least to some degree, a level of concern with how it is perceived in the world, and a level of aversion to sanctions.
For example, in 2006 Myanmar was removed from an international list of states that supported money laundering, after it took steps to crack down on banks that were engaged in the practice (Myanmar removed from, 2006). The Financial Action Task Force praised Myanmar for its aggressive efforts to close rogue banks and prosecute their operators (Myanmar removed from, 2006).
In addition, Myanmar has taken successful steps to curb opium cultivation within its borders. The country, which had long been the second-largest opium grower in the world, trailing only Afghanistan, reduced opium cultivation by 83% from 1998 to 2006 (UN: Myanmar’s 2006, 2006). This move was designed to appease not only the international community, but also China, where many of the illicit drugs being produced in Myanmar were ending up (Challenges to Democratization, 2001).
Quite clearly, Myanmar’s decisions to crack down on money laundering and opium cultivation were in direct response to global and regional pressures and perceptions of Myanmar in the global community as a nation that turned a blind eye toward lawlessness.
Myanmar also reacted sharply after it was placed on the United Nation’s permanent agenda, as a first step toward sanctions. The country’s rulers blasted the measure as counter-productive, claiming the American actions were a violation of the UN’s charter (Shea, 2006). Next, the ruling junta reconvened talks that had been stalled for months on a national constitution that would arguably bring democracy and human rights reform to Myanmar (Myanmar reopens, 2006). It is worth noting that these constitutional talks are seen by many as a farce, and they certainly have been used as a political bargaining chip in the past. In fact, the National League for Democracy, the main opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has refused to participate in the talks and there were reports on government crack-downs on political dissidents in the period leading up to the talks (Myanmar reopens, 2006).
But, for the purposes of this discussion, we can set aside the issue of whether Myanmar’s ruling party is committed to democratic or human rights reforms. The more important issue for our research is that Myanmar’s ruling junta does seem interested in global opinion and is not completely disengaged. Myanmar’s government cracked down on money laundering and opium cultivation to improve the nation’s standing in the global and regional community. Also, the ruling junta, through its talks on a constitution, took steps — half-hearted or not — to beat back sanctions that could have a harmful effect on the nation’s economy.
The picture that emerges of Myanmar’s ruling party is of a group that is bent on preserving its power. However, the notion that the ruling party is completely disengaged from global politics, which would render steps like sanctions useless, does not appear to be completely accurate. Political pressure may one day provide a path to progress in Myanmar after all.
It is too early to tell whether any legitimate winds of changes are blowing in Myanmar, and, at any rate, change can not come soon enough for the millions of Myanmar residents who have lived too long under an oppressive regime. If political and human rights changes are ever to occur within Myanmar, a number of obstacles must first be overcome.
The United Nations must continue to press Myanmar’s regime for change, using sanctions as a threat. Ultimately, nations such as China and Russia will make it difficult to apply such pressure, but it is an action worth taking if for no other reason than to keep Myanmar on the global front burner. Also, the United Nations may find that China and Russia eventually become more cooperative as they continue to do business with Myanmar and find that they have a strong economic interest in the nation’s stability.
ASEAN also must take a leadership role in pressing Myanmar for reform. The regional organization, of which Myanmar is a member, has mostly taken a hands-off approach to Myanmar, adopting a policy of non-interference and focusing instead on economic issues. However, Myanmar is a black mark against Southeast Asia, which could damage ASEAN’s ability to promote economic investment in the region. ASEAN has the power to influence Myanmar, and one day may be forced to use it in order to meet its mission of improving economic opportunities in the region.
Finally, groups such as the UN and ASEAN, as well as individual countries, can not be afraid to use sanctions as a tool for encouraging reform in Myanmar. The theory that Myanmar’s ruling junta is too isolationist to be concerned about sanctions simply does not hold water. Myanmar’s leadership has shown an aversion to economic penalties and a willingness to take some measures, even if half-hearted, when faced with threats. This knowledge should encourage nations and multi-national organizations to keep up the pressure on Myanmar, as such pressure may one day yield tangible results.
In the end, change in Myanmar will come from persistence. There are plenty of obstacles that stand in the way, such as resistance from the UN and ASEAN, as well as the actions of the Myanmar regime itself. But none of these things are necessarily permanent obstacles. Ironically, the groups and nations that most hinder pressure being applied to Myanmar would benefit most from its stability. A stable, democratic Myanmar will be a better economic partner for China, Russia and Myanmar’s neighbors. We can expect that these nations, individually and through global and regional organizations, will eventually press for stability and reform in Myanmar. Until that time, the rest of the world must keep Myanmar front and center in the dialogue of global politics.
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