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Sanctioning Burma: Que Sera Sera

By Stephen Brookes in Kyaing Tong, Myanmar
for Asia Times April 24, 1997

It was about half an hour after sunset, and the hills of Shan State in northeast Burma were deepening into rich shades of blue, as the sky darkened and the lights of the town blinked on below. There were five of us on the balcony of the Kyaing Tong Hotel, four journalists and an articulate young colonel from Myanmar's Office of Strategic Studies, and we were engaged in an unusually open discussion about politics in this troubled country. Suddenly a reporter from Japan's NHK burst in.

"CNN just announced that the United States is imposing sanctions on Burma," he said.

                                                                               Stephen Brookes
The conversation stopped. We all looked over at the colonel, who a few minutes earlier had been telling jokes and describing his experiences as a soldier fighting the Burma Communist Party insurgents in this same part of the country.  His face went taut, as if he'd been slapped, and he stared off into the dark hills.

"This is just politics," he said grimly, after a few moments. "We aren't politicians -- we're only trying to develop the country. We survived without anyone's help for 26 years, and we can do it again if we have to."

It was a strange and significant moment. Just about every observer in Myanmar had assumed that a US ban on new investment was inevitable, but the news had come in the middle of a trip led by Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, one of Myanmar's top leaders, to show journalists and diplomats the government's efforts to wipe out opium and develop the region's economy. The trip was pure public relations, but it was also a lesson in the realities of power politics in a country that faces potentially explosive divisions.

The ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council was able to take us into the Shan region, for example, because it had struck a cease-fire arrangement with the drug-trafficking insurgents who formerly held control. A stable modus vivendi had been achieved.

"We allow them to keep their arms, and we work together with them to develop the economy," the young colonel had explained earlier that day in Mong La, a rapidly-expanding town on the Chinese border. "Everybody's tired of fighting, so now we're cooperating for economic development," he said, pointing to a group of soldiers lining the airstrip where our helicopter had landed. "The guys with the G-2's are ours," he said, indicating the semi-automatic weapons they carried, "and the guys with the AK-47's are the former insurgents." They looked to us like part of the same army.

... sanctions reflected America's failure to come to grips with realities in the region ...

That cease-fire with the insurgents was the result of a realistic strategy on the part of the SLORC, explained one diplomat on the trip.

"The West has a strategy of arresting drug traffickers and seizing their assets," he said. "But here, that doesn't work. It takes a long time to eradicate the opium, and you need to have an economy. So the government goes to the traffickers and says, 'cut back some of your activities and we'll turn a blind eye to the rest, as long as you put money into building the economy.' It's a transitional process, and it takes a long time."

So when the US sanctions were announced -- with Secretary of State Madelaine Albright saying that the SLORC had "chosen not to listen" to US demands for political change, and had "failed to cooperate in the war against drugs" -- many diplomats in Myanmar suggested that the ban reflected America's failure to come to grips with realities in the region, both in terms of drug control and political evolution.

"It's hard to see how the US ban will realistically improve anything in Myanmar," said one diplomat at a subdued reception in the hotel, shortly after the news had spread throughout the group. "It only creates more intransigence on both the government's part, and on the part of Aung San Suu Kyi." Another Western diplomat agreed, predicting that unilateral sanctions would completely end Washington's already-weak influence in Yangon. "This must be America's new policy of 'splendid isolation'," he noted drily.

The US charge d'affaires (who had only received the news a few hours before CNN announced it), was off in a private discussion with an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but among the other ambassadors, military attaches and drug enforcement experts in the crowded room that night, there was almost a sense that the sanctions were irrelevant.

"US sanctions have already been factored into ASEAN's decision to admit Myanmar", said one ASEAN diplomat. "They don't matter to us at all." The Japanese ambassador also shrugged the move off, saying that Tokyo was concerned that a sanctions policy would isolate Myanmar. Beijing had a policy of non-interference in other countries' affairs, added the Chinese ambassador, noting that "Myanmar needs to go its own way".

And in the middle of the room, surrounded by a small crowd, was Gen. Khin Nyunt. He was dressed casually, and seemed tired and disappointed at the news, but not angry. The US move "will have no effect," he told us, as he sipped a glass of orange juice. "In politics you have to expect these things." Asked whether the sanctions would cause the SLORC to reconsider any of his policies, he said, "We don't have anything to reconsider, because we are walking in a straight line. And we have many friends in the region."

It was a subdued crowd that left Kyaing Tong the next morning. The journalists were bundled onto a plane and sent off to Tachilek, where we wandered around listlessly in the dust for a while before being fed and taken back to Yangon. It had been a long trip, and we had all retreated into our own little worlds of fatigue and heat exhaustion. As we were loaded onto the bus for the final trip out to the airport, I found myself sitting behind Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt, an all-purpose academic who had been brought along for our benefit. As the bus started up, he suddenly burst into song.

"Que sera, sera," he sang, "whatever will be, will be." He looked around cheerfully, to see if anyone wanted to join him in a Doris Day sing-along. No one did. "The future's not ours to see," he urged. We were oblivious. "Que sera, sera", he said quietly. Then he fell silent, too.


Posted on Monday, April 17, 2006 at 08:27AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments2 Comments

Reader Comments (2)

Your website looks fantastic. It keeps evolving. By the way, you are quite the modern Da Vinci- a writer, photographer, web designer etc.

All great stuff.
June 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSarah
I owe it all to clean living, whole wheat bread, and the American Way of Life!
June 11, 2006 | Registered CommenterStephen Brookes

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