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.
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.
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