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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 ...

Having fallen in love from afar (like many Westerners) with the beauty and nobility of Aung San Suu Kyi and her cause, I would curse the ignorance of anyone I saw drinking a can of Pepsi, which then had bottling operations in Myanmar.

Ahead of holiday weekends at the cottage, I would root through my friends' shopping carts, imploring them not to buy Pepsi, 7-Up, Frito-Lays, KFC or Taco Bell (brands then owned by PepsiCo). The Lady had called for a boycott, and I was her storm trooper in my local grocery store.

We were granted a small victory in 1997, when Pepsi withdrew from Myanmar. But 14 years later it's plain and painful to see that we accomplished nothing more. (Pepsi, for the record, is easy to find here now, though not so commonplace as Coca-Cola.)

Yet in Western capitals, and among Myanmar's large population of political exiles, it's as if there were nothing to debate. It's still vividly remembered that tough international sanctions, over a long time, helped to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa. To drop them now on Myanmar, as Ms. Suu Kyi and others say, would be to reward Senior General Than Shwe and his underlings for despicable behaviour.

The junta still refuses to honour the 1990 election victory by Ms. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). The military crushed student demonstrations in 1988 and 1996, and proved its bloody-mindedness again as recently as 2007, when it resorted to force to quell the monk-led Saffron Revolution.

"Without the sanctions, the people of Burma would still be miserable and the generals would be much happier. They'd be much richer and would have no accountability at all," says Soe Aung, a member of the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a Thailand-based exile organization.

But during my two-week trip in Myanmar, I have seen few signs that the generals and their coterie are feeling the pain.

If anything, the sanctions have created a class of super-affluent Myanmarese, nearly all of them affiliated with the junta, who made their fortunes through sanctions-busting.

For example, to get that Land Cruiser, the buyer must pay for an official import licence and other taxes before the sale takes place outside Myanmar - often paid for via accounts in Singapore - and a middle person drives the car over the border from Thailand and delivers it. All along the way, the junta, its cronies and their associates abroad take their cuts.

"No one who understands transaction costs would support sanctions," says Nay Win Maung, director of Myanmar Egress, an independent civil-society organization based in Rangoon. "Sanctions affect the grassroots. It's an empirical reality."

Unlike Myanmar, South Africa didn't have neighbours such as China, Thailand, Singapore and India, which have flouted the sanctions almost since the beginning.

Late last month, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) made its position even plainer, calling for sanctions to be lifted "to ensure that economic development in Myanmar can take place."

Thanks to these neighbours, Myanmar's elites aren't suffering. The shelves at CityMart, a high-end chain of supermarkets with locations around Rangoon, are stocked with French and Australian wines, Chinese snacks, L'Oréal makeup, Gillette razors and Alpo dog food.

But few ordinary Myanmarese have ever walked the store's air-conditioned aisles.

"Look at what's in the shops: If you have the money, it's there," says a Western businesswoman who asks not to be named. She says Western investment would actually improve the human-rights situation by introducing practices such as environmental-impact assessments and labour standards that firms from China and ASEAN aren't known for.

"You can talk about economic mismanagement if you want, but the foreign investment that is coming in employs people."

Right now, the country generates most of its cash by selling its abundant natural resources - gas, wood, gems and rice. But the money from resource exports never trickles down. No processing or manufacturing is done here, as nobody wants a "Made in Myanmar" label.

This allows the government to blame the sanctions even as they enrich themselves. Every failure is laid at the feet of Ms. Suu Kyi, the NLD and the West.

"Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state," reads the daily bold-type instruction of the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper. "Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy."

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