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Devotees pray at Myanmar's holiest Buddhist site, the Shweddagon Pagoda in Rangoon. (Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail/Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail)
Devotees pray at Myanmar's holiest Buddhist site, the Shweddagon Pagoda in Rangoon. (Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail/Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail)

Mark MacKinnon

Myanmar: Where the generals play and the people pay Add to ...



If we sanction Myanmar, then why not China?

Since my days of teenaged pro-Burma righteousness, I have travelled inside more than a few nasty regimes.

There is no question that Myanmar's government is repressive, keeping more than 2,200 political prisoners even after Ms. Suu Kyi's release in November. The army has been accused of systematic rape and torture during its on-and-off wars against ethnic militias in the country's borderlands.

But ordinary citizens do not live their lives in fear and worship of a dictator, as North Koreans do. They get by however they can, usually left to their own devices so long as they do not go near politics or big business.

In that respect, Myanmar is most like China, albeit without the economic progress that has pulled hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty in recent years.

The Communist Party of China never repented for the bloodshed on Tiananmen Square in 1989, nor would it allow an organization like the NLD to exist.

China's own Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, remains in jail while Ms. Suu Kyi, for the moment, walks free.

So why is the West so insistent on continuing to punish the junta even as it does trillions in trade with Beijing?

The handful of foreign-aid workers based inside Myanmar are among the most vociferous opponents of ongoing sanctions. They all have tales of trying to tackle the multiple crises facing this country, only to be hamstrung.

Most important is a general lack of aid money - roughly $5.50 a person reached Myanmar in 2010, a 10th of the aid that goes to Cambodia and Laos, two nearby countries with both higher per-capita incomes and authoritarian governments.

Then there are the impractical restrictions that, for example, demand international aid organizations have no contact with the local government.

"I see these policies having several negative impacts," contributing to high child malnutrition and maternal mortality, says Bishow Parajuli, Rangoon's humanitarian co-ordinator for the United Nations Development Program.

"The unfortunate part of this is we're linking everyone [in Myanmar]into one box. It's totally doing a disservice."

Mr. Parajuli was particularly critical of the Canadian government, which gave just $2.5-million in 2009 to humanitarian programs inside the country, or just five cents a person. In comparison, that year Canada poured $10.9-million into Cambodia (almost 75 cents a person).

Aid is focused instead on Burmese refugee communities in Thailand, where the Canadian International Development Agency spent $15.9-million over the past five years.

"Canada is not dogmatic or ideological about this," says the Canadian ambassador to Thailand, Ron Hoffman, who also has responsibilities for Myanmar. "If the needs are there, we believe we can help in a manner consistent with our sanctions policy,"

But many aid workers complain that Canada has chosen the cheap high ground.

"Except for the generous assistance after Cyclone Nargis [in 2008] the only things the Canadian government has done for Myanmar are granting Aung San Suu Kyi honorary citizenship and imposing the toughest sanctions in the world. Neither of which costs the taxpayers of Canada a single dime or does anything for the people of Myanmar," says Andrew Kirkwood, a Canadian who heads Save the Children Myanmar.

"If the Harper government is serious about trying to improve maternal and child health around the world," he adds, "Burma should be one of the first countries they send money to."

Signs of reform that point in contradictory directions

Myanmar is arguably becoming more open, even if not nearly fast enough for the NLD and its supporters around the world.

The junta rammed a new constitution through by referendum two years ago while much of the country was still digging out from the death and destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis. It entrenches military power, but it also provides the country, for the first time since a coup d'état in 1962, with a nominally civilian head of state and a parliament.

Granted, the elections in November were laughable: Ms. Suu Kyi was barred from running and widely unpopular military-backed parties somehow won nearly 80 per cent of the seats.

The first week of Parliament in Naypyidaw disappointed anyone who expected immediate progress, as Thein Sein, the junta's former prime minister (and a recently retired general seen as a protégé of Gen. Than Shwe), was elected President in a vote no diplomats or media were invited to witness.

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