November 21, Financial Times
New pressure can oust Burma’s generals - Amartya Sen
It is difficult for me to talk about Burma without a deep sense of
nostalgia. My earliest memories are all there; I grew up in Mandalay,
between the ages of three and six. But the magically beautiful country I
remember from my early years has now been in the grip of a supremely
despotic military rule for almost half a century, with collapsing
institutions, arbitrary imprisonment, widespread torture, and terrorised
minority communities. The situation has remained terrible for so long that
there is now a kind of defeatism that makes frustrated well-wishers eager
to be thrilled by little mercies. So while Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from
unjust confinement is a great moment for celebration, it is also a time to
think clearly about what the world can do to help her cause.
What can the world do? Many analysts of Burmese affairs have called for an
international commission of enquiry, possibly led by the United Nations.
The case for this is strong, especially after the manipulated elections.
There are, however, immediate measures that can also be taken to put
pressure on the regime.
First, the existing framework of sanctions and embargoes has to be
reshaped. General sanctions that hurt the Burmese people, such as
restrictions on garment exports, can be replaced by those that isolate the
rulers by targeting their own favourite activities. At the top of the list
must clearly be an embargo on arms and armaments of all kinds. There is
also a strong case for sanctions on the commodities – from minerals and
gems to oil and gas – that yield huge profits to the regime. Travel bans
on the personnel running the regime, or those closely associated with it,
can be effectively pursued. Financial restrictions on large transactions
that come from businesses in which the military rulers are directly or
indirectly involved would help too.
Neighbouring countries have a special responsibility. The Chinese
government is the regime’s most important supporter, providing extensive
business connections (not just in oil and gas) and political patronage.
Visitors tell me Mandalay is now largely a Chinese-run city, with most of
the good premises and new constructions being occupied by Chinese
businessmen. But China is not alone: criticisms can be made of the
supportive policies of both India and Thailand. These countries should
realise a change of course is not only morally important, but also in
their long-term interests. The tyrants will, sooner or later, fall.
However, the memory of betrayal of the Burmese people will last much
longer. The intensity of anti-Americanism that is one of the most potent
forces in Latin America today – related to past US support of brutal
dictators – points to something that Burma’s neighbours should want to
Yet a global strategy that goes beyond the neighbourhood is also needed.
Several western countries have strong business relations with Burma, for
example in oil. But as yet neither the European Union, nor the US, nor
indeed Switzerland, Australia or Canada, has used the power of financial
sanctions against the regime. Western countries are sharp on rhetoric in
denouncing Burma’s rulers. But given they do not do what is entirely
within their power to do, it is harder to persuade China, India and
Thailand to do the right thing as well.
Finally, we have to start thinking about how a post-military government
should deal with the culprits of the past, both because that will be an
important issue in a non-defeatist scenario, and because it is part of the
considerations that make the present-day rulers decide what they can
reasonably expect if they yield. Here there is something to learn from the
intellectual leadership of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, about not
threatening bloody revenge but opting for the sagacity of offering safety
in exchange for remorse. Even butchers have to find a “way out” if they
are not to go on fighting – and tyrannising – to the bitter end.
Towards the end of March 1999, I received a phone call from an old friend:
Michael Aris, the husband of Aung San Suu Kyi. I knew then that he was
extremely ill with prostate cancer. Michael told me, as he had done many
times earlier, that the one focus of his life was to help Ms Suu Kyi, and
to work for Burma’s freedom. He did not want to die, but he hoped others
would continue to focus on what can be done. I received a call only a few
days later that Michael had died; it was also his birthday. So Michael
Aris is no longer with us, but the need for the focus he championed is now
particularly strong. In Burma’s recent election we witnessed what Vaclav
Havel has described as “a mockery of free expression in which people vote
in fear and without hope.” But with determination and wisdom, the tyrants
can be made to withdraw, and Burma’s people may be free once more.
The writer, who received the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics, teaches
economics and philosophy at Harvard University.