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Burma's exiled ethnic nationalities seminar held in North America

Even Though My Head is Bloodied, Yet I am Unbowed
Kanbawza Win


Punitive actions by the civilized international community and the correct leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is slowly but surely yielding dividends and the country is inching towards democracy. The Junta's decision to release a few hundred political prisoners is a positive and long due move but still not yet sincere as it trick another prisoner conscience and refused to let go U Win Tin in the last minute. There are still over a thousand opposition activists languishing behind the bars — not to forget our beloved leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This is the clearest indication that the regime wants to chair the ASEAN chairmanship and be accepted by the international community.


Apparently, Burma 's inscrutable Junta is beginning to feel the pressure of global public opinion particularly from its friends in the ASEAN that has been uneasy about passing the leadership of the club to Rangoon . By releasing political prisoners, the Burmese brass is endeavouring to woo the ASEAN as well as the international community. Burma ’s neighbors and the world community must continue to pressure the Junta to release all political prisoners including Daw Suu and allowed to form the government and this must be strongly supported by the ethnic nationalities and the Burmese in Diaspora.


 No doubt there will be the BOC Group ((not Burma Oil Company but Betrayal of Our Cause) including some disgruntle youths supported by a jobless diplomat whose travel agency is desirous to go inside Burma to do business and some hooked nose farang theoretician that may argue otherwise. The main rationale of why the Junta and it cronies both inside and outside the country are crying wolf and yelling very loudly to lift the sanctions and other punitive actions is that they have the hidden agenda of wanting to prolong the Junta's hideous rule. What more proof is more wanted when the people of Burma have somehow or other survive since the military Junta under different guise that came to power in 1962, proves that sanctions have little or no affect on the people of Burma , but rather it has a great impact on the ruling cliques not only economically but also morally. The latest release of the prisoner is a clear proof of the punitive actions and not the lousy appeasement policy or rather the Constructive Engagement Policy that endeavour to soft pedal the approach that bite home the target. In this aspect all the Myanmar and Non Myanmar residing in the peripherals of Burma and in Diaspora should show their solidarity with the Western countries led by the US and EU. We are on the right track and are in the course of speaking to the Junta in the only language, which they understand. 


The world has spoken to dictators like Saddam Hussein, Pinochet, and Milosevic in their own language and this is exactly what Burma need. Some analyze these punitive measures including economic sanctions as a part of a strategy package focusing on regime change. They want the civilized world to compromise with the Junta and viewed through the prism of conflict resolution. Why equate the morality of democracy and tyranny? They argued that Sanctions are merely the strongest diplomatic protest against an undesired regime, but grudgingly admitted that sanctions reinforce other means of regime change but do not cause change per se. But they failed to understand that nobody in the world ever says that the regime will change because of sanctions. Every body should realize that sanctions against the Junta serve as symbolic support to the visible opposition movement led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi inside the country and that the entire civilized world is behind them.


It is just a reminder to the Burmese Generals that they are rouges and pariah and is not acceptable in this civilized world. It is crucial to see that the Junta view sanctions as a sort of a bargaining chip. The regime is willing to receive rewards from the international community for its cooperative actions and the release of a few hundred prisoners is an authentic proof. The Burmese generals are seeking rewards from the international community for their constructive actions and have their target in the coming ASEAN meeting.


The moral suasion did more than sanctions to effect regime change. The Cuba case is another example. The despot is entrenched, the people impoverished, and the benefits of economic and culture contact with the world foregone. To a degree, this is what happened in prewar Iraq : Saddam continued building his gilded palaces while his people suffered. So also is the case of Burmese Generals as they and their cronies exploited the people. To rally international support for sanctions against a regime as loathsome as the military junta in Burma , someone must take the lead. This is clearly the approach of the Bush administration, which has combined its unilateral sanctions with diplomatic pressure to get other nations onboard. While it's true that the number of foreign firms in Burma continues to survive, and the regime has found ways around U.S. restrictions on dollar transfers (notably through the use of the banking networks of Belgium-based SWIFT), international pressure is mounting. The EU, for example, has toughened its sanctions against Burma , banning arms sales and enforcing a broad visa ban and asset freeze. Japan has frozen essentially all new non-humanitarian development assistance to the regime. Major multinationals from Canada and Great Britain have disinvested. Even ASEAN is embarrassed by the prospect of Burma taking the helm of the organization in 2006, have moved away from their policy of "non-interference" and begun publicly pressuring the regime to reform. But pressure from within is as important as pressure from without. What is necessary for sanctions to have a chance at success is an organized opposition that sees them as a valuable weapon. Nelson Mandela's ANC Party is a perfect example of such a movement, as is Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in Burma . U Lwin because of the hanging sword of Damocles has said that they are neutral but in their heart of hearts is that they want the West to continue the punitive actions including sanctions. Burma is a country, like South Africa , where sanctions can have a positive effect? Jagdish Bhagwati, professor of economics and political science at Columbia -- while in principle opposed to unilateral sanctions -- believes so: " Burma is widely considered to be abusive; it is pitted against a Nobel laureate for peace; distaste for its regime is widely shared and recorded in votes at international institutions such as the International Labor Organization. There are no great contracts to be lost in Burma . There is also a significant probability that continued sanctions will maintain the pressure that the Junta will respond to."


It is no doubt that comprehensive economic sanctions have an indiscriminate impact on a country and can entail severe negative humanitarian consequences for the civilian population. In a series of conferences, representatives from the United Nations, government and the private sector held a dialogue aimed at identifying methods of applying sanctions in a more targeted and efficient manner. Switzerland initiated this series of conferences with the Interlaken Process. Following the Interlaken Process, Germany and Sweden organized a series of further seminars on targeted sanctions. The Bonn-Berlin Process focused on travel and air traffic related sanctions as well as on arms embargoes. The Stockholm Process dealt with the practical feasibility of implementing and monitoring targeted sanctions. Targeted sanctions are intended to be directed at individuals, companies and organizations, or restrict trade with key commodities. The following instruments should be enforced more rigorously


  • Financial sanctions such as freezing of funds and other financial assets ban on transactions, investment restrictions.
  • Trade restrictions on particular goods (e.g. arms, diamonds, oil, lumber) or services
  • More travel restrictions on the Burmese diplomats.
  • More Diplomatic constraints. More
  • Cultural and sports restrictions and of course
  • More Air traffic restrictions


One should not forget that any discomfort induced by sanctions pales in comparison to the horrors committed by the Junta. No doubt sanctions will affect the populace, but Burma ’s informal sector (parallel “shadow” economy) is so massive that the majority of the population is not part of the Junta’s universe. The 75 percent of Burmese from the rural sector, who contribute 47 percent of the country’s GDP are certainly poor, but are not as affected by the Western sanctions as the business interests owned and run by the Burmese army and their cronies—which in Burma means the rest of the economy. The Junta’s degradation of the environment and exploitation of the rich resources that belong to all the people of Burma should also be stopped. The logging trade in Burma is inextricably linked to forced labour, drug trafficking, money laundering and cross border conflict. A smart sanctions policy on Burmese timber can help mitigate against these violations while working to preserve Burma ’s quickly disappearing natural wealth, the most bio-diverse countries in mainland Southeast Asia . Since the Burmese regime derives a great deal of revenue from timber, particularly teak, it should be subject to United Nations sanctions as “conflict timber” in the same way that Liberian timber will be excluded from trade.


Only about one third of Burmese school children make it all the way through primary school, most dropping out to work. With only 1.1% of Burma ’s GDP committed to education, the cost of education in Burma is borne by parents, mostly in the form of indirect taxes and donations paid to the education department, the teachers and the school. Assurance of good grades, entry to a particular school, a teaching position, or surmounting onerous red tape usually requires joining the ubiquitous USDA. Hence, sanctioning the Burmese regime is morally and politically the right thing to do, it represents only one part of what should be a coordinated two-pronged strategy.  But such action should be complemented by increasing the American funding of programs, just like what EU has done late, that benefit and prepare the Burmese people both inside and in the exile community to prepare for a democratic transition--which certainly will come one day.


It is also crucial for the international community especially policy makers about Burmese democracy movement. It is more than just its leader, and now cannot be construed as the beauty and the beast affair. It is millions of people who share the same desire to be free from terror and live in openness that cherishes democracy and human rights. Burma ’s jails continued to be filled with the prisoners of conscience who are committed to non-violent opposition to the regime. The world should not forget these souls. The Burmese people are not asking for military intervention on their behalf. What they asking the International community are not to sustain this regime with trade and under different guise.


If sanctions were lifted will the people of Burma be better? To answer this question let us look at the historical facts. During the Burmese Socialist days when the country under U Ne Win, to be exact in 1976, the world financial institutions like the World Bank and the ADB had given a substantial amount to the then army supported regime. But it ended up the country into the status of the least developed country. These marauding gun wielding generals are just economic bumpkins bent on usurping power. Will the international community lend a helping hand to such an odious regime only because it was able to recruit some foreign intelligentsia and a few BOCs? Archbishop Desmond Tutu said," Apathy in the face of systematic human rights abuses is immoral. One either supports justice and freedom or one supports injustice and bondage."


To the people of Burma in Diaspora may I give a humble advice that we have come so far and must not be swayed by the rumbling of a few. Let us carry on the traditional struggle no matter what is the cost as let not the fighting spirit of the flying peacock lowered for "even though my head is bloodied, yet I am unbowed."



The views express here are solely the opinion of the author. (Kaowao's Editor)


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