Monday, October 5, 2009

US sanctions and Burma's environment

Do sanctions against Burma work?  Do they somehow benefits Burma over the long-term?

This question was discussed at a recent US Senate hearing on US-Burma relations.   For an overview of the hearing see, "Burma is not Vietnam." See also "Burmese slam Senate hearings" and "US Senate AWOL on Burma."

The overriding question, Sen. Webb said, is whether the current approach has brought the results we seek. Webb referred to sanctions as "tensions."

Dept. Sec. of State Kurt Campbell said that "Any easing of sanctions now would send the wrong signal to those working" to help Burma.  He said that sanctions will "only be lifted if Burmese take meaningful action."

Senator Webb read from a letter from Kent M. Wiedemann, US Chargé d'Affaires ad interim for Burma (Oct 1996-May 1999).     Wiedemann explained that he had frequently met with Aung San Suu Kyi, and that Suu Kyi had seen sanctions as "tactical tools."  On the other hand, US based groups saw sanctions as "weapons" to force regime change.   In his view, sanctions had proved harmful and counterproductive.

Sen. Webb characterizes the current approach as "unsuccessful." and cited a subsequent increase in investment into Burma by China and North Korea.  

There was heated exchange between Sen. Webb and Prof. Williams, a legal scholar who opposed lifting sanctions.  Williams had spoke at some length about atrocities that have been committed by the regime.

Webb asked Williams if he had favored lifting sanctions against Vietnam in 1991.

"Yes" replied Williams.

Webb said, "Vietnam in 1991 was in worse condition than Burma in 2009."

In a  statement entered into the records,  monk leader Ashin Candobhasacara  (right) quoted with approval Sec. of State Clinton's remark, that "We will maintain our existing sanctions until we see concrete progress towards reform.  But, we will be willing to discuss the easing of sanctions in response to significant actions on the part of Burma's generals that address the core human rights and democracy issues that are prohibiting Burma's progress."

Candobhasacara noted, "Sanctions help preserve the natural resources of Burma for future generations.  At present, the Burmese regime is simply looting the coutnry and attempting to sell the resources to the highest bidder.  The Burmese regime is not simply corrupt and skimming profits off the top of international business deals -- it is literally looting the country and keeping all the profits for itself. By placing sanctions on Burma, our country's natural resources are more likely to remain in the hands of the people so that a true representative government and market-based economy can put them to good use."

I think  the environmental argument is very compelling.

However, it may be difficult to show that the pillaging of Burma's resources -- were US sanctions to be lifted -- will be appreciably worse than in other least developed countries (Laos, Cambodia, etc.).     Furthermore, such "pillaging" seems bound to happen regardless in Burma.  That's because Chinese investments in the country continue to expand.   At least in theory, US-owned businesses can be forced to apply US environmental standards to their operations.  This could impact the overall national  standards.  Likewise, in the labor market, in order to retain top Burmese talent, Chinese and local businesses owners may be forced to raise their standards, lest they lose them to US competitors.

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