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December 17, 2009
Burmese people suffer brunt of U.S. sanctions on Myanmar

Young Burmese men sitting on bikes in Yangon. Photos: Michael Lwin

In recent months, U.S. policy on the isolated Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar has been shifting towards greater engagement.

Worldfocus blogger Michael Lwin, who recently returned from Myanmar and is of Burmese descent, argues that U.S. sanctions have been ineffective and have caused undue suffering for the Burmese people.

During my trip to Myanmar, it was heartbreaking to listen to young Burmese people who, because of geographic accident of birth, have a tiny fraction of the opportunities and possibilities that I do.

“We go to college and get masters and are educated,” said one young Yangon resident. “We have degrees in science and medicine. But there are no jobs for us.”

Official statistics say that the unemployment rate is 5 percent, but many Burmese people told me that it was much higher.

A man sharing a Yangon taxi with me said: “We are so behind the rest of the world. Look at Thailand. They cooperated with the West, and look at them now. We used to be far superior, and now we are very behind. Our struggle is very sad.”

For decades, the Burmese people have struggled in isolation as their nation has faced sanctions from the U.S. and other Western nations aimed at punishing the ruling military junta.

A Burmese woman peels onions at a roadside restaurant.

The Obama administration has been pursuing a policy of cautious engagement with Myanmar. U.S. Senator Jim Webb, a Vietnam War veteran and Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, has been pushing for a policy of even greater engagement.

In an August 2009 New York Times op-ed, Webb criticized the “ever-tightening economic sanctions against Myanmar,” on the basis that China, Russia and India still make business deals with Myanmar.

Webb continued: “If Chinese commercial influence in Myanmar continues to grow, a military presence could easily follow. Russia is assisting the Myanmar government on a nuclear research project. None of these projects have improved the daily life of the average citizen of Myanmar, who has almost no contact with the outside world and whose per capita income is among the lowest in Asia.”

Sanctions also cripple Myanmar by encouraging educated Burmese to leave the country for the West. Myanmar continues to lag behind ASEAN counterparts in human capital. Sanctions also take away many jobs from the Burmese, forcing women into the sex industry and giving rise to black markets.

I believe there is another reason that engagement might work in Myanmar.

Unlike North Korea, which actively stamps out other religions besides the state’s propagandist Juche ideology, the Burmese have been a deeply spiritual and predominantly Buddhist people for over a millennium.

Senior-General Than Shwe, Myanmar’s ruler, is influenced by Buddhist principles, having built a massive pagoda in the new capital Naypyidaw.

The Naypyidaw pagoda is intentionally one foot shorter than the revered Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, presumably because Than Shwe does not want to offend Buddhist sensibilities. It is also rumored that he enlisted astrologers to select the location of Naypyidaw.

It is possible that Than Shwe, at the ripe age of 76, wants to build up good karma for the next life by engaging the Obama administration.

Whether Webb’s theory will work remains to be seen. While initial attempts at engagement seemed fruitful, progress has stalled. But some are optimistic that relations are picking up again.

For the sake of the Burmese people, I hope change comes soon.

– Michael Lwin




Our international community should review the way we are handling Burmese military government. We all have to agree that Sanction is not working. We need to educate Burmese Government to be opening minded with open door economy systems (Like China) and help them to see bigger picture of country future and give Burmese government a new focus. That method proving to work with China, it should work with Burma.
What do you think?


consider- if the junta had used the money it got from trades with Thailand, Singapore, Korea, China, India, for good – not just buying the military equipments – but for health, education and economic investments for the people.

Burma is still rich with natural resources – just leave the people alone – just stop sucking blood etc, the people will make it just right.

The reality is – the junta needs money and it acquire it by robbing the people – at the same time, junta gives no plausible services back to the people. What the junta has done was just rubbish.
As long as the junta is throwing its rubbish around, the people will suffer.


If the junta let the people trade with no restriction and only with reasonable taxes, then lots of problems can be solved within a year. The junta has but supply the needed energy and electricity. As much as it sells to the foreign countries, it must also supply the energy to the burmese people. The junta must stop the corrupt authorities and the confiscation of lands etc. Must allow the farmers do their works. Health is another issue for economy – and the junta must fix it.

Ha, ha, ha
I don’t believe the junta is competent to do these. As long as, the power is in the hand of a murderer, and treasury is in the hand of thieves, don’t expect any good from the junta.


I think you people still remember the song of Ko Moon Aung: tin-done-ka-dot-tin-lite-ya-de-pin-nya-dwe… you educated yourself, as though to occupy the world, that was in the 1990s. Actually, images like these images you published here were seen by our very eyes before the 1988s. How the Ne Win government demonetized the K100 note, K75 note etc. I saw the K75 notes rotten in expectation if the gov would make the same exchange it did with the K100. We all know some female uni students sold themselves to get education. Then there were still black markets along the borderlines. I think you all know the custom trying to catch the traders during these black market days – plenty of sad stories though. After the gov opened the official trade with Thailand, traders had to pay tax, etc since – that was still like robbery. And now I think much worse. What’s the difference? The difference is they can rob officially in different way. I’d like to suggest the author also to visit these areas along the borderlines trade zones. Well, why these things keep happening? That is economic mismanagement and corruption. Why? Just because of those greedy, uneducated, unqualified, plutocrats of course. Recently, the economic Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz suggested the junta what to do. So why so rush – just wait and see if there is a new economic policy in Burma. If they do love the people, they might already have open up the country for real. Burmese people do not need to access American and EU markets – they only need plausible economic policy and rule of law – not robbery.


Dear Zaw,
May I beg to differ.Yes, the military junta has botched the economy.However in the late 80s and early 90s they did open up the country to trade and life WAS easing up in Burma ,until Aung San Suu Kyi asked for sanctions and things started to go back downhill.She wanted the world to “send a message” to the military junta.All it did was to impoverish the country to the point that some young Burmese women are driven into the sex trade to survive.Read Derek Tonkin’s post.(#8)Is this what Aung San Suu Kyi wants? As a woman she should care about the plight of her countrywomen. She IS a hero.But is she a good leader?Shouldn’t a good leader care about the people more than the ideology?Don’t we see even George W Bush going against ideology sometimes ,when he felt it was good for the country?Ditto Obama?Iran’s opposition does not want sanctions for their governmant although it is oppressive.I wish there was some debate about this ,rather than just this blanket “Suu Kyi is Good so she is always right”.the lives of 50 million people are at stake and the future of the country is at stake.


phuweso, You must be kidding, are you trying to imply that Aung San Suu Kyi’s wishes are against the benefit of 50 million Burmese people? All the people suffering are cause by pro democracy movement and sanctions? Are you crazy of what? Like a Burmese proverb, the thief is pretending like a victim. Do you remember the economist situation and people’s life under the Mility Junta before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and pro democracy movement in 1988? It is your mility Junta who is causing all these suffering, endless human rights violations, poverty, instability, and so on and on…


I see there are pros and cons to the sanction issue.the most important thing is that we are debating it.I commend Michael Lwin for being courageous enough to take a position that is not exactly popular.My take is ,which is more important- Aung San Suu Kyi’s wishes,or the fate of 50 million Burmese people.


Please wait till next year election. Myanmar will be, as promise by the Junta, a flourishing democratic prosperous country. Yes, 25 % will be represented by the military in the Parliament .The rest will be
civilian (or ex-uniform).So what? 75 % with no direct military link is better than nothing ! Do you think country like Saudi Arabia has more democratic values and freedom ? The Saudi will send you to jail for carrying a Bible .Yet, UK and USA are selling billions worth of arms and munitions to such countries.Sanction is a smart bomb in reverse –It only hurt the innocent.


The end result remains the same for Myanmar (as well as Honduras and other poor countries) proving once again Chairman Mao’s assertion about power.


All these suffering are existed even before the sanction. The economy was destroyed systematically since the BSPP (Burmese Socialist Program Party) came into power. Ne Win the smarty nationalized all business and imposed the sanction to the whole world away form Burma by closed door policy.

I agree that sanction will cause people to suffer a little longer, but lifting them while the military junta is still in power will not help people either. Poverty and unemployment exist in all countries, it is directly related to how government handle the issues. What the Regime did to help these poor people? If they did nothing now, they won’t do anything after sanctions are lifted either. Besides, you can’t rebuilt a stable economy on the top of unstable political foundation.


The debate about sanctions takes place in a vacuum because no Western Government has yet had the courage to provide an independent, impartial assessment of their effectiveness. Indeed, both the European Council in 2006 and the British Government in 2007 declined to respond to high level requests for a public assessment, from the European Parliament in the case of the EU, and from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee in the case of the UK. These refusals for no good reason have led many people to conclude that Western Governments know that their sanctions are hitting the population and not the regime, but are too embarrassed to allow this to be revealed publicly.

Suu Kyi has asked for information about sanctions, but I fear that what she has been given will be partial information designed to show that sanctions are targeted only against the regime. Examples of how the population have been targeted and which will not have been given or explained to Suu Kyi include: denial of aid from international financial institutions since 1989 (ADB, IMF World Bank) and curtailment of bilateral ODA programmes; strong measures against labour-intensive industries such as textiles, agro-industry, seafood, tourism, furniture manufacture which have put tens of thousands of people out of work, in some cases forcing them to emigrate to Thailand and Malaysia where they suffer exploitation and victimisation; blanket withdrawal of tariff preferences designed to support developing economies; targeting of hundreds of small family businesses by name in Annex V of the February 2008 EU measures simply because they were engaged in small scale manufacture of e.g. furniture and jewellery though without any suggestion that these business were State, military or crony, including a large number of known supporters of the NLD and other pro-democracy parties.

As a result, the economy generally has become debilitated and the population poorer particularly in the rural areas. OECD reported in 2007 that each Burmese citizen received only US$ 4.00 per head per year in aid from all sources, compared with an average among OECD’s list of 38 “fragile states” of US$ 42,00, including US$47.00 for Cambodia and US$ 68.00 for Laos. Aid received for Cyclone Nargis relief, when 140,000 people died, was less than one-tenth of aid provided to the victims of the 2004 Tsunami when 220,000 people died. In short, even humanitarian aid is subject to sanctions for political reasons, even though Western Ambassadors in Myanmar have given assurances that aid can be monitored and delivered effectively.

The regime, meanwhile, has been particularly fortunate to earn some US$ 200 million monthly from sales of natural gas to Thailand. This will double when the Mottama and Shwe gas fields come on stream and another pipeline is built to Thailand and oil and gas pipelines to China are completed. With reserves estimated at US$ 3.6 billion, the regime is not short of funds. Professor Joseph Stiglitz has pleaded in Nay Pyi Taw for these reserves to be spent wisely, in support of the population.


Myanmar people really need business and better educational opportunities. Give direct help to Myanmar people. Help to develop agriculture and small business sector.


All foreign investments help financing the regime, which spent more than 40% of national budget to expand and modernize the army. Needless to say how the military regime has been brutalizing its own people. There are piles of reports by UN Human Rights Special Rapporteurs and credible international human rights organizations. We believe that foreign investment under the military rule is more beneficial to the regime and more harm to the people of Burma. Therefore, those who are investing in Burma today are indirectly responsible for the human rights violations committed by the Burmese Army and its obstruction to democratic change in Burma. Two days after her release from house arrest in May 2002, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stated “I don’t think we have found evidence that sanctions have harmed the Burmese people, because they have been clearly limited and many of those who have suffered under sanctions have belonged to the business community. Naturally some ordinary employees have been exposed, but we have not yet found proof that large numbers of Burmese have suffered as a result of sanctions. Sanctions have a role to play because they are a strong political message. But also because they are an economic message.”
But now, she has been proposing to solve out this question together with regime. Actually, it’s up to the junta’s sincerity.


STOP(Lifting) sanction is not going to help ordaniry Burmese people.Why do Burmese people have to suffer? Everybody knows that regime is every ministry sector and every major management post on place in their army officers, they don’t know how to manage economic,education,health etc etc…They only like to show off their power and how to rip off and crap.Even senction is lift off now because of their mismanagement the country will still suffer and ordaniry people won’t get to be well off.Think about it other countries liked to help on Cyclone Nargit when it happened but what did the military do?
Because of them our country had and has to suffer so if you like to sanction to lift regime must change first.


Of Burmese descent? Right! But genetics does not guarantee the deep knowledge or understanding of the grassroots and ground situations of people. Professional journalists are not allowed to have opportunites to dig what/why is happening. Someone like this Michael Lwin caracter (obviously harmless in the eyes of the military intelligence) hops in, pops out and sucks up Webb and his pro-junta stance to echo brainlessly that sanctions make people suffer. Sanctions or not is the point. The point is the military generations have ruined the country for over 40 years that we are seeing the consequences. Take the example of Nargis donors. You try to give and you end up in jail. It is as simple as that. Don’t bother yourself with pseudo-intellectual take on the impact/effectiveness of the sanctions. Make an all encompassing, big-picture analysis, “mate”! Your article sounds too shallow and your sympathy to us living inside too hollow.


I empathize with the ordinary people of Burma and would wish that this situation didn’t exist. That is does is entirely down to the junta and it’s brutal, misanthropic control.

One thing I am absolutely sure of: lifting all the sanctions would NOT mark a turn round for the people of Burma.

Why? The regime and its crony partners control nearly all business activity in Burma and they have given ample evidence of complete indifference to the impoverished life for the vast majority of Burmese people. So no surprises that the lion’s share of Burma’s GDP goes to the junta; everyone else has to manage on crumbs and scraps. I don’t expect that to change after the 2010 election and I’m equally sure that it wouldn’t change if, hypothetically, sanctions were lifted.

Salvation for the Burmese people and a much brighter tomorrow will come when there is regime change.


Your first-hand account is greatly appreciated. The Myanmar people are being made to suffer for no fault of their own.


i agree with you mate.because our people needs more help and stop this sanction now.

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