In Myanmar, Two Hidden Worlds
Amid privations, its regime prospers
by trading with China and India
by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro
This grandiose new city has four-lane
highways that are largely empty, a gems museum with sapphires
and a zoo with air-conditioned Arctic habitats for penguins. Government
officials reside in high-security compounds that can't be visited
A five-hour drive to the south, residents
in Yangon get by with hours at a time of no electricity. Their
once-grand city is filled with collapsing Victorian mansions and
abandoned colonial administrative buildings. Roads are often impassable
during monsoon rains, and most cars date to the 1980s or early
1990s. Some taxis are so worn out that they have holes in the
floorboards that allow passengers to see the road rushing by underneath.
The divide between Myanmar's shining new
capital, home to much of its military elite, and its commercial
capital underscores the failure of a decade of U.S. and European
sanctions, efforts to break the country's military regime by cutting
it off from doing business with much of the Western world. Instead,
the country's leaders and top businessmen have survived and even
thrived by replacing Western buyers with Asian ones. Trade with
China has more than doubled over the past five years, and sales
of natural gas and other resources to Thailand, India and other
Asian powers are also growing quickly. In the process, the regime
has only tightened its grip.
All that is leading dissidents, human
rights advocates and congressional leaders to an increasingly
widespread conclusion: It's time for a new approach. Many believe
it will require a far greater effort by Western governments to
engage directly with the secretive regime. It will also require
exerting more pressure on Asian trading partners, including China
and Singapore, to pressure the junta to curb human rights abuses
and make other changes. Many advocates are calling for more radical
approaches, including offering to dismantle some of the sanctions
-albeit with threats of more serious actions, such as arms embargoes
or criminal tribunals like ones in Rwanda or Sudan, if the regime
Others go so far as to propose that the
West should accept a diminished role for Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's
leading opposition figure. The Nobel laureate is arguably the
world's most revered prisoner of conscience since Nelson Mandela,
but she has drawn criticism for her inflexibility in dealing with
the regime. It's unclear when, or if, she'll be able to lead the
opposition again. The 64-year-old is on trial for letting an American
well-wisher visit her home this May in violation of a longstanding
house arrest, and faces up to five more years in jail.
In February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton acknowledged that past strategies including sanctions
weren't working, and promised the U.S. would conduct a thorough
review-still incomplete-of its policies towards Myanmar. Top officials
in the Obama administration are also hoping to significantly increase
humanitarian aid, according to people familiar with the matter,
which many Myanmar experts hope will be a step towards rebuilding
a civil society that could mature into a new opposition movement
to supplement or replace Ms. Suu Kyi.
Once dismissed as a backwater, Myanmar
has seen its profile rise dramatically in recent years because
of its position between China and India, the world's two biggest
emerging superpowers. Both are jockeying for Myanmar's natural
gas, copper and other resources, and Myanmar offers China a potential
alternate overland route for oil and gas, bypassing the crowded
Strait of Malacca near Singapore that handles much of East Asia's
Trade with China jumped to more than $2.6
billion in 2008 from about $630 million in 2001, according to
Chinese government data. Analysts say the official numbers vastly
understate the full extent of China's investments in Myanmar.
In downtown Yangon, its commercial capital, trucks laden with
massive logs or other goods-sometimes with Chinese characters
painted on the side of the vehicles-are a common sight.
Monywa, once a relatively minor village
in central Myanmar, has emerged as a major trading center for
beans and other legumes, commodities in heavy demand across Asia,
especially India. Myanmar is now the world's second biggest exporter
of the crops after Canada, and Monywa has reaped the rewards.
It has quadrupled in size to 400,000 people over the past two
decades. The number of traders has grown to roughly 1,000 from
200 in the 1990s and multistory homes with Greek columns are commonplace,
as are imported SUVs, which can cost $100,000 in Myanmar.
In places like Monywa, "it's easy
to make money," says one local trader in his 20s.
Some analysts and U.S. congressional leaders
fear Myanmar could become a nuclear threat. Russia has acknowledged
signing an agreement with Myanmar in 2007 to help build a nuclear
reactor and a center for nuclear research there, reportedly for
medical research purposes, but Russian officials have said no
concrete projects ever materialized. Others point to growing ties
between Myanmar and North Korea.
Any new diplomatic initiative from the
U.S. would require finding a way to deal with one of the world's
most reclusive regimes. Top officials-including the country's
senior-most general, a psychological warfare expert in his 70s
named Than Shwe-are ensconced in Naypyitaw. Members of the inner
circle rarely meet with Western ambassadors, who remain in Yangon.
Attempts to reach the regime for this
article were unsuccessful. The generals typically make their views
known through state-run newspapers. In recent weeks they have
blasted foreign countries for interfering in Myanmar's internal
affairs and defended the imprisonment of Ms. Suu Kyi as necessary
for public security.
The government usually prohibits foreign
journalists from entering. Authorized guests, including aid workers,
often must get permission to travel outside Yangon. Residents
can be imprisoned if caught aiding international journalists.
In the 1800s, British soldiers conquered
what used to be known as Burma. It became the world's biggest
rice exporter and a major source of timber. In the late 1940s,
nationalists led by Ms. Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, secured independence.
Aung San was assassinated and in 1962 the military took over for
good, implementing a series of disastrous socialist policies that
sent the economy into a tailspin.
Anger boiled over in 1988 student protests,
in which more than 3,000 were killed, and the government agreed
to hold national elections. When Ms. Suu Kyi's party won, the
military ignored the result.
The U.S. banned new American investments
in Myanmar in 1997, and in 2003 it outlawed imports of Myanmar
goods and restricted American banks from doing business there.
The Bush administration added additional targeted sanctions against
members of the regime.
The practical effect of the sanctions,
though, has been to push the regime deeper into the arms of China
and other Asian powers, while leaving much of the rest of society
to suffer the consequences. Per capita gross domestic product
is about $1,200, only slightly higher than Rwanda, and far below
Singapore's $52,000 and $47,000 in the U.S.
In Yangon, U.S. trade restrictions ripped
apart the garment industry earlier this decade, throwing as many
as 80,000 young women out of work, according to economists. Trucks
filled with soldiers are seen often, as are signs with pro-government
messages such as one that exhorts residents to "Crush all
internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy."
In Yangon's central business district
there are offices or billboards for many of Asia's biggest brand
names, including Mitsubishi and Canon, but almost no sign of Western
companies. Thai oil and gas producer PTT Exploration & Production
PCL has Myanmar investments that provide about one-third of Thailand's
natural gas needs, worth $2 billion or more in recent years. Cnooc
Ltd. is exploring for oil and a number of Chinese resources and
engineering firms are involved in hydropower and mining ventures.
Much of the money flows directly to the
regime and its allies. According to the U.S. government, the military
owns a majority stake in virtually all enterprises responsible
for extracting natural resources. The government is now sitting
on more than $3 billion in foreign exchange reserves, compared
to just $30 million in 1988. Wealthier residents, including businessmen
linked by U.S. intelligence reports to the military, have access
to art galleries, pricey French restaurants and shopping trips
Adding to the frustration is evidence
that Ms. Suu Kyi's opposition is in tatters. Leaders of Ms. Suu
Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, are
in their 70s and 80s, and the junta has imprisoned most of the
younger blood, exiles and human rights groups say, with more than
2,000 political prisoners now under lock and key. The government
has also pressured monasteries to purge monks involved in 2007
street protests, and it routinely blocks blogs and Web sites,
such as youtube, that it deems to be subversive.
"Almost no one is willing to join
the (opposition) party for fear of being arrested," said
one resident. Party leaders meet regularly at their headquarters,
a modest house surrounded by shops on a busy street in central
Yangon; it's widely assumed the building and its occupants are
monitored by the government.
Another resident said she started attending
meetings at NLD headquarters when Ms. Suu Kyi's trial began, but
stopped because she felt they were going nowhere. "They were
old, they were like aunties and uncles," said the young woman,
who thought the meetings felt "like a reunion" for old
dissidents. Without Ms. Suu Kyi, "there is no one,"
Even some dissidents who support sanctions
say additional tactics are needed, including more direct engagement
with the regime. Others believe the sanctions would be more effective
if fine-tuned to focus only on the junta members themselves, or
backed up with more potent punishments, including arms embargoes
or criminal tribunals.
More than 50 U.S. congressmen signed a
letter in recent weeks calling for a U.N. Security Council inquiry
into alleged crimes against humanity in Myanmar, similar to what
occurred in Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan. The United Nations' former
special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro,
has issued similar calls in the past six weeks, as has a team
of leading jurists in conjunction with Harvard Law School.
Those efforts may well be blocked at the
U.N. by nations that have defended Myanmar in the past, notably
China and Russia. But backers say the U.S. hasn't been willing
to press hard enough to get Asian nations to get tough on Myanmar.
Another option gaining popularity in Washington:
significantly boosting humanitarian aid, partly to build stronger
groups to counter the military.
One group is Myanmar Egress, a local think
tank set up in 2006 by young intellectuals with the goal of trying
to end the stalemate between the government and Ms. Suu Kyi's
backers. Egress has produced studies for the government outlining
its vision for reform. In one, co-founder and former Yale student
Nay Win Maung suggested that Ms. Suu Kyi propose to contest only
50% of the seats in an election planned by the regime in 2010.
In return for effectively conceding the vote, the government would
end her house arrest and release political prisoners.
Mr. Maung's approach has angered some
Myanmar exiles, who are suspicious of engaging with the state
and distrust Mr. Maung, whose parents were in the military and
taught at Myanmar's version of West Point. His approach, though,
has made him a useful mediator between foreign aid groups like
Oxfam and the generals, local aid workers say. The U.K.'s Department
for International Development, for example, is funding an Egress
project to train Myanmar citizens in managing aid projects.
The junta could block or limit aid if
it suspects it's being used to undermine the regime, as it did
temporarily last year after Cyclone Nargis, which killed 135,000
people or more. Currently, development aid to Myanmar totals less
than $3 per person, compared with about $50 in Sudan.
Whatever happens, "if people want
to punish the regime, they need to find ways to do it that don't
punish the people," says Andrew Kirkwood, Myanmar country
director for Save the Children, the aid organization.
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the former U.N.
special rapporteur to Burma