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Will Western Sanctions Bring Down the House?

Kyaw Yin Hlaing


For years Myanmar has been on the blacklist of Western countries due to allegations about the junta’s human rights violations and its perceived failure to take effective action against drug producers. When the United States first imposed sanctions on Myanmar, the main rationale was to bring about political reform to improve the lives of Myanmar people and end the state’s pariah status. This essay examines the effects of the sanctions on ordinary people in Myanmar in recent years.

Political Difficulties

Foreigners tend to focus on Myanmar’s human rights violations against members of opposition parties and pro–democracy groups. Most Burmese have only a passing interest in politics; they are more concerned with day–to–day survival. Their struggle for basic needs was complicated by the junta’s labor and forced relocation practices, which were rampant in the 1990s, and which led the United States and the European Union (EU) to apply the sanctions policy in an effort to put an end to these practices.

Tragically, isolation has had the opposite impact. The presence of foreigners and international organizations in the country would effectively discourage local officials from relying on forced labor to meet objectives (in fact, in violation of central government policy). For instance, when more than a decade ago a local military commander was ordered to renovate the Mandalay Palace’s moat, he required local residents to either donate money or contribute their labor. Middle class families contributed money, but poorer families had no cash and so contributed labor. This forceful demand for manpower became especially onerous in midsummer when Mandalay was experiencing 100°F daytime highs. Although not mentioned in Myanmar’s press or television, the international media launched scathing criticism. Because of BBC and VOA coverage, other foreign media also ran the story; even though many had no reporters in the country, they interviewed and used photos or video footage shot by tourists. Faced with such blatant evidence and such widespread international attention, local officials soon began paying people a daily wage. Although this ended the practice of forced labor in this instance, the lesson learned by local governments was not to abandon the policy but to be more discreet in applying it. Thereafter, few incidents were reported; however, the practice continues in rural areas not visited by foreign tourists.

Other violations of human rights became routine in the cities as a result of forced relocation. People frequently have been pressed to move from...

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