(By Min Yee Mon – October 2009)

I am an ordinary citizen of Myanmar with no connection to any political party nor the government. I do not officially represent the people of Myanmar, but I am confident that many share my opinion. I am just expressing my personal views on what has happened and is happening to my fellow citizens following the sanctions imposed on the government of Myanmar by the United States of America and the European Union.

The previous government of the United States of America and governments of the European Union imposed economic sanctions on members of the government of Myanmar and major business organizations and their owners alleging them as supporters of the government. The restrictions were later expanded to embrace some 3,000 small private businesses and, ridiculously, almost all roadside gold and jewelry shops. Oddly enough, while the sanctions targeted even roadside gold and jewelry shops, America’s Chevron and France’s Total, the two Western energy giants that are reaping millions of dollars monthly from our country’s natural resources are excluded from the sanctions. This double standard sanctions is an indication of America and the European Union’s selfish protection of their national interests with the welfare of working-class people of Myanmar at stake.

According to a report published by Myanmar Survey Research, a non-governmental economic research group, revenues earned from the export of natural gas for the month of January, 2009 topped all other product categories at over US$ 507 million, constituting 70.78 % of the total export value. On the other hand, earnings from the sale of handicraft & homemade products, a product category belonging to the general public linked to tourism industry, is a laughable US$ 123,878 or 0.02% of the total export value. This indicates the ill-effects of the sanctions had on the tourism industry where many working class people of Myanmar depend on for a living. 

An article, entitled "Total and Chevron Fuel Human Rights Abuse in Burma", posted at wordpress.com by World Carfree Network on 10 September 2009, quoting two reports released by EarthRights International entitled "Total Impact : The Human Rights, Environmantal, and Financial Impacts of Total and Chevron’s Yadana Gas Project in Military-Ruled Burma" and "Getting it Wrong : Flawed ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ and Misrepresentations Surrounding Total and

Chevron’s Yadana Gas Pipeline in Military-Ruled Burma" released by EarthRights International in September 2009, is a plain evidence as to who are the major supporters of the Myanmar Government.  The report says "Total and Chevron’s Yadana gas project has generated US$4.83 billiion dollars for the Burmese regime, and as a result of this revenue, Total and Chevron are a leading external factor contributing to the regime’s intransigence and a primary reason why international and domestic pressure on the SPDC has to date been ineffective, according to ERI". Which of the major private companies that came under fire are proved to be major contributors to the government’s coffer?

By saying this, we are neither pressing for the inclusion of Total and Chevron into the sanctions list nor do we expect lifting of the sanctions altogether, but we suppose the 3,000-odd small non-governmental companies and roadside gold and jewelry shops – who are in no way supporters of the government of Myanmar – deserve the empathy, if not the favour, of the US and EU governments.  They are just doing business in their own small way on a shoestring budget. Imposing sanctions against them is inapproptiate and should be lifted unconditionally and immediately.

We know that the sanctions proved ineffective as far as the intended targets are concerned, but did adversely affect untold numbers of average working-class people of Myanmar and, worse, exacerbate the predicaments of those with hand-to-mouth existence.  Private business companies, providers of employment for tens of thousands of our people, are facing huge losses resulting in job losses to thousands of workers.  The pain and suffering that accompany unemployment are imaginable to all sensible minds. It turned out that we, the people, are the ultimate losers; we fell victim to the actions aimed at righting the wrongs of the government.  It is appreciable that the sanctions are not purposely meant to hurt the people, but in reality it did, directly or indirectly, jeopardize the overall security of the general public. For instance, people living in the remote regions of Myanmar are reliant on air travel due to inadequate infrastructure in other modes of transport.  Airline operators are in turn dependent on Western firms for the procurement of aircraft spare parts to maintain airworthiness of their fleet which is so vital to the safety of their passengers.  Sanctions made procurement of aircraft spare parts and accessories extremely difficult rendering poor standard of airworthiness of the aircraft posing a potential threat to the safety of the passengers, both local and foreign.  Another example is the garment industry where women constitute the majority of the workforce.  With the collapse of garment industry as the result of the sanctions, many female workers were left jobless and most of them were driven into to sex-related trades or fell prey to human traffickers.

US president Mr. Barack Obama talked about "change" in his inauguration address in January this year.  His message "To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds." has been so encouraging to us.    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she wanted to find a "better way" to sway Myanmar’s military leaders. The messages voiced by leaders of the most powerful nation on earth sparked a flicker of hope in us for a positive change in Myanmar. However, much to our disappointment, the Obama administration had recently extended the sanctions as did its European counterparts. It seems that there is no "better way" to sway the government other than extending the sanctions, in other words, prolonging the sufferings of the already suffering people of Myanmar.

The political divide between SLORC and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should be bridged by the two parties concerned through diplomatic means.  Why were we, the people who are apolitic, have to become victims of the sanctions that popped up as a result of the unbridgeable political differences in our country?  I hope the US and EU governments can find a better way to break the existing political deadlock in Myanmar other than protracting the sanctions.

During his second visit to Myanmar in early July this year, UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki Moon pointed out that "the reality is that millions (in Myanmar) continue to live in poverty. Standards of living in Myanmar remain among the lowest in Asia. The people of Myanmar need jobs, they need food security and they need access to health care. We must work to ensure that the people of Myanmar can benefit from and contribute to the regional and global economy". The Secretary General’s words disclose a genuine sentiment toward the welfare of the people of Myanmar, but how can this goal be achieved with sanctions that produced only negative outcome for the people are in place?

In his book "The River of Lost Footsteps", Thant Myint-U wrote, "In almost every way, the policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries of the world – where the military regime isolated itself for the better part of thirty years, and which has grown up and evolved well in isolation – is both counterproductive and dangerous". We welcome America’s statement at the 64th United Nations General Assembly to engage with the government of Myanmar.  We see it as a move that can bring about positive change in our country.

While actions taken against a government for political change cannot be regarded as wrong or deplorable, careful consideration should be given beforehand on the impact it will have on the general public and, more importantly, revisions made if it hurt innocent people.  It is time to consider lifting the sanctions against those extraneous private companies and small business or, at least, trimming down the extent of the sanctions to allow enough breathing space for the public.

A question remains for all of us to answer : Can the clouds hanging over Myanmar be blown away by international engagement instead of isolation?

အယ္ဒီတာမွတ္ခ်က္။  ။ ျမန္မာျပည္မွ ေပးပို ့လာေသာ စာတေစာင္ျဖစ္ပါသည္။

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Editor - The Myanmar Gazette || First Amendment – Religion and Expression - Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.