By Joan Bieder
FRONTLINE/World reporter Joan Bieder.
August 31, 2004
A Country Without Elections
Americans remain divided this election season over the Bush administration's zeal to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq virtually alone and at the cost of American lives. But not many are aware that the United States is using economic sanctions to force regime change and promote free elections in a remote Asian country.
Myanmar is so far off the radar screen of most Americans that reference to it often draws blank stares. Renamed in 1989, it is still far better known as Burma, a leafy green, once-prosperous nation rich in rice and teak, prawns and gems. Bordered by India, China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar is an isolated country, home to more than 100 ethnic minorities and ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962.
I wanted to see the exotic country and what impact the sanctions
were having on the Burmese generals and on ordinary people,
but I did not want to support the junta. I compromised by booking
a brief tour from Singapore, where I was spending the summer.
It is easy to come and go to Myanmar from Singapore, as the
nearby city-state is one of a handful of countries that trades
actively with the former British colony, in spite of the U.S.
A lone teak tree near a fishing village. Logging without replanting is depleting one of Burma's most precious natural resources and causing dangerous flooding.
"We are a mismanaged country, and the people are suffering,"
said a young Burmese man who worked as a part-time translator.
"America is the only country that stands up and openly supports
us against the regime. We like the sanctions."
I heard this view often, if surreptitiously, during my visit, but I also learned that the situation is more complex. There is a growing sense in Myanmar that the sanctions aimed at forcefully shoving the regime toward democracy are missing their target and punishing the poor.
The Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Myanmar in 1997. Congress overwhelmingly approved more rigorous sanctions with the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, banning all imports of Burmese products to the United States for one year, freezing the assets of senior Burmese officials and blocking virtually all remittances to Myanmar. In July 2004, President Bush extended the act for another year. The White House statement read, "We will maintain pressure on the regime until there is tangible progress toward the restoration of democracy and protection of human rights for all the peoples of Burma."
Senator John Kerry, a co-sponsor of the 1997 sanctions, continues to strongly support them, and he will do so, according to his campaign office, until legitimate dissent is allowed and there is democratic reform in Myanmar.
Back in 1988, Burmese students led a nationwide wave of protests,
demanding political reform. But the military crushed the movement,
killing an estimated 3,000 students, office workers and Buddhist
monks. Many fled into exile. In a 1990 election, the Burmese
voted overwhelmingly (80 percent) for the National League for
Democracy party (NLD) and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The
military refused to accept the vote and placed Suu Kyi under
house arrest. In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,
and she was released in 1995. But since then, the 59-year-old
pro-democracy leader has repeatedly been placed under house
arrest, where she remains today.
Sculpture of a traditional Padaung woman wearing necklaces that create the illusion of a long neck, but really push down the collarbones. Many ethnic minorities like the Padaung have fled Burma and now live in Thailand.
The generals who seized power in 1988 originally called themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council. More recently, they adopted the Orwellian name of the State Peace and Development Council. But they continue to suppress all dissent and to jail and torture their political opponents, and they haven't bothered to hold an election since they nullified the last one 14 years ago. It's the sort of regime that makes an overseas American grateful for the U.S. electoral system, however rancorous and deceitful the latest round of campaign ads.
Myanmar's military junta makes it difficult to learn what is happening in the country. There is no press freedom, and they tightly control access by foreign journalists. The main papers are the New Light of Myanmar, a government mouthpiece, and the independent Myanmar Times, which is not noted for its independence. The regime has jailed journalists, writers and poets, some of them for life. There is a joke going around Yangon, the capital city (formerly Rangoon), that you can pick up a live electrical wire and nothing will happen, but if you pick up a real newspaper you might get electrocuted. The man who told me this joke also told me that the comedian who made it up was thrown in jail.
Most of the conversations I had in Myanmar took place in tea shops or over
coffee in cafés. Here, after looking over their shoulders
to be sure no one was listening, men spoke about the country
more candidly than I expected. To protect them, I agreed not
to mention their names. I met people who told me they had been
forced to leave their jobs to build roads in rural areas. They
said forced labor continues in the countryside. They told me
that away from the cities, unreported human rights abuses occur
frequently, including soldiers raping ethnic minority women
and taking young boys away to the army.
Almost 5 million people live in the densely populated capital
city. Most of the buildings are only three to five stories high
and are in need of paint and repair. Yangon appears to be a
city out of the past, not ready for the 21st century. I saw
only a few satellite dishes. And although the telephones from
the well-run hotel I stayed in seemed to work fine, I learned
that it costs US$5,000 to buy a cell phone -- I saw only one
during my visit.
Rangoon has a population of five million and crumbling housing stock. In the far left corner is Shwedagon pagoda, one of the holiest sites in Burma.
Although the secretive and authoritarian regime has kept Myanmar isolated from the world, it now hopes that tourism will give a major boost to the economy. There are elegant hotels and restaurants in Yangon that are relatively cheap for Western tourists, and the local employees have been trained well to serve. The dark-red brick buildings that are leftovers from British rule -- the high court, the hospital and the broken-down, boarded-up railroad building -- speak of a more prosperous time. The dramatic golden spires of the Sule and Shwedagon pagodas are beautiful and mysterious.
Buddhism is the central religion, and among the throngs on the streets of Yangon each morning, one sees groups of Buddhist nuns dressed in faded pink -- with shaved heads and somber faces -- as well as barefooted monks in maroon togas carrying bowls to receive gifts of food. From early morning until evening, the main streets are filled with men and women wearing graceful longyi cloths, knotted at the waist. Yangon is one of the few large cities in Southeast Asia where almost all people still wear traditional clothing. The long skirts are a gentle and welcome change from the Nike sneakers, jeans and skimpy, branded T-shirts and the high-styled career clothes seen in the more modern Asian cities.
Street vendors sit on the sidewalks, offering guava, lemon
grass, cauliflower, all manner of greens, shrimp, duck, chicken,
plastics and laminated maps, as well as meals of boiled noodles
and food cooked in pots of oil. At almost every corner, a man
or woman sits at a stand and wraps bits of betel nut in green
leaves slathered with a white liquid of lime-calcium oxide to
create a bite-sized packet that brings a bitter taste, brown
teeth and a nicotine-like jolt.
Vendors come into the city from the poor outskirts -- unseen by most tourists -- to sell their wares.
An open stall sells used books and old magazines, including a copy of Life with Marilyn Monroe on the cover; a hardware stall sells hand tools and rusting nails. Battered, noisy buses charge by without windows and with passengers piled on top of each other and hanging out the back. The vendors are encouragingly approachable and happy to bargain. Having their pictures taken is still a new phenomenon, and few posed or protested. They are thin; in fact, everyone in the country is very thin, including the dogs outside the monasteries.
And then there were the children on the rutted streets who
approached me, asking for food or money. The first was a small
unwashed boy about 6 or 7 years old, carrying a smaller child,
perhaps 1 or 2 years old, who was wrapped to his back by a piece
of soiled cloth. He tugged at me for attention. He kept pointing
to his stomach and his mouth. These children were the most vivid
example of poverty that I saw. A Burmese told me that they come
into Yangon from the "satellite cities" to beg.
Official statistics are often dated and inaccurate, but some estimate that nearly 30 percent of Burma's population live in poverty. Outside of Yangon, the standard of living can decrease by over 30 percent.
I learned that the satellite cities on the outskirts of Yangon are where the poorest people live. The standard of living decreases there by more than 30 percent, said a knowledgeable American who lives in Southeast Asia. He told me that the government moved the poorest people out of Yangon in order to clean it up, but did not move them to land where they could grow their own food. This practice of forced resettlement can lead unquestioning tourists to believe that things are not so bad in the cities they visit.
Waiting and Hoping
Many pro-democracy Burmese strongly hope and believe that Aung San Suu Kyi will one day re-emerge from house arrest and resume her place as their active leader. U.S. sanctions sustain that hope. But other supporters acknowledge that years of repression have weakened the NLD. The regime outlaws NLD meetings, and the military hassles and jails supporters. It is dangerous for people to talk about their discontent. At the same time, those with the courage to speak want word of their plight to spread. One activist told me, "As soon as she [Suu Kyi] is freed, the regime can't stop her voice, and the NLD will rise like a Phoenix." But the activist also confided, "I don't think the regime will release Aung San Suu Kyi very soon."
As the Burmese wait for democracy, many complain that the sanctions have hurt ordinary citizens rather than the council of generals who rule the country. Since the 2003 sanctions began, exports have dropped an estimated 60 to 70 percent, causing widespread layoffs in the textile industry. In the summer of 2003, the private banks collapsed, credit cards were no longer accepted and U.S. cash became a standard currency. The sex trade has grown as unemployed women turn to prostitution, AIDS has spread, and young men find their future narrowed to becoming monks or joining the military.
I spoke with international NGO workers who are in close contact with rural villagers. Many have come to believe that U.S. sanctions are wrongheaded. "Hundreds of women lose their jobs when a Hong Kong- or Taiwan-owned factory closes or moves to Cambodia," said a worker. "These women are often the primary supporters of their families. So sanctions hurt the whole family." Some Burmese workers resort to crossing the border to Thailand illegally to work in factories, leaving them vulnerable to arrest.
I asked Burmese if the sanctions are worth the price of poverty, especially since there seems to be little or no progress toward democracy and freedom. Even the most idealistic Burmese woman I know admitted her goals seem elusive. "The sanctions won't work as long as China is backing the Burmese military regime and as long as ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries continue to trade with Myanmar," she said.
Myanmar joined the ASEAN in 1997. Since then, ASEAN members -- notably Singapore and Thailand -- have traded regularly with Myanmar. I saw old taxis on the streets of Yangon that had been purchased from Singapore. Burmese men and women -- those who are able to pay fees as high as $1,800 for a passport to leave Myanmar -- travel to Singapore to work as maids or in other jobs and send their wages to families back home.
But it is not only the ASEAN countries that are undermining the effect of U.S. sanctions. India, Japan and especially China trade openly with Myanmar. Some Burmese feel foreign investors take advantage of the country. "We are surrounded by carpetbag countries," said one Burmese. "They come in and they take everything and give us nothing."
China is now a major trading partner of Myanmar, whose textile factories, the ones that remain, are likely to be sewing army uniforms for export to China instead of clothing for export to America. China supplies military equipment, construction materials and information technology to Myanmar. A former Burmese schoolteacher told me, "Now we must lick the boots of the Chinese." Many pro-democracy Burmese hate the Chinese for supporting the regime and blunting the effects of the sanctions.
There have been reports that Thai fishermen trawl in Burmese waters for the shrimp and prawns that Burmese used to export to the United States. But the most cited example of exploitation is the deforestation of teak trees. "When the British were here," said a Burmese, "they replanted as they harvested trees. But the current government did not do that. It will take 80 years to bring our teak forests back to what they once were." As he talked, he pointed to a small, lone teak tree by the side of the road near a fishing village outside Yangon. Deforestation, according to other Burmese, has resulted in the flooding of cities along the main rivers, like the Irrawaddy, the Salween and the Chind. In northern Myanmar, one Burmese told me, a whole village was inundated, but the regime newspaper didn't report it.
The Burmese say that the generals usually take a percentage of most business transactions conducted with other countries and that they profit from the lucrative opium trade. They complain that the generals think little about the plight of the people, but instead fill their own coffers. They live in the plush suburbs around Yangon and prepare for comfortable retirement.
The military regime's development of active trade with China
and the ASEAN indicates that despite U.S. sanctions, the generals
have found a way to pursue the goals of entrepreneurship and
profit. As a result, sanctions are having far less of an effect
than the United States and pro-democracy Burmese desire. The
National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle, Washington, a
nonpartisan policy institute, recently published seven essays
by international scholars on U.S. relations with Myanmar. The
report said that sanctions "undermine the position of the
reformers within the military, strengthen the resolve of the
opponents of reform in the military, make pro-democracy supporters
seem traitors in the eyes of both reformers and opponents of
reform within the regime, and have a deleterious social effect
on an already poor country."
I did not hear such nuanced, sophisticated policy analysis
during my brief stay in and around Yangon. Most of what I heard
was the emotional plight of unhappy, desperate, yet still hopeful
people. Sanctions may not solve the long-term problems of Myanmar,
but Burmese activists do not want to them to end. Web sites
such as the Democratic
Voice of Burma and the Daw
Aung San Suu Kyi pages favor sanctions and urge all nations
to employ them.
In Burma, many children and women apply thanaka, a paste made from bark, onto their faces. These school children are among the fortunate few whose families can afford to pay for some education.
Meantime, the daily miseries persist, even when the surface image
may be pleasing to a tourist. In the countryside, I drove past
a one-story concrete elementary school. I saw smiling children
ready to learn in their green shorts and skirts with white laundered
shirts and blouses. Their faces were covered with the pasty
cream that comes from mixing water with the bark of the thanakha
tree. Most Burmese believe the cream is healthy for the skin.
The school and the uniforms appeared to be an example of how
the government is providing for village children. Then I learned
that the entrance fee was 2,000 kyat, about two U.S. dollars,
and that a typical mother could only afford to send one of her
many children. Poverty was limiting educational opportunity,
no matter how lovely the photographs I was snapping.
On the outskirts of Yangon, the government is building a tourist park called the National Races Village to celebrate the country's ethnic diversity. The Chinese built the bridge I crossed to get to where the "typical" native homes were displayed in the park. Full-sized dwellings from the seven states of Myanmar -- Karen, Rakhine, Mon, Kachin, Chin, Shan and Kayah -- made up the exhibition. Members of minority groups living in these states have fought the military regime and have been killed for it. But there is no mention of that here. There is a large wooden sculpture of the head and neck of a Padaung woman, including the 20-plus necklaces these ethnic women put atop their collarbone to heighten the impression of an elongated neck. Many Padaung women and other ethnic minorities have fled to Thailand to escape military repression and religious persecution. But here, in what the tourist brochure calls "Your one-stop destination for studying the cultural heritage of Myanmar national races and for relaxation," the minority groups are presented as national treasures.
By the end of my short visit, I had come to think of the country as being stuck in a tragic and unhappy present. And in the case of education and health, they are actually moving backward. On the way to the airport, my taxi passed under an ornate arch decorated in the striking gold paint that one sees on every city and village pagoda. A sign above it reads, "Moving toward a modern nation."
"Yes," said my cabdriver, "you are going to the airport and moving toward the modern nations of Singapore or Thailand -- even China -- but not here."
Joan Bieder is a senior lecturer at U.C. Berkeley's graduate school of journalism.
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