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eTN Inbox: The Struggle to engage Myanmar

Aug 19, 2008

Predictably, the stance taken by Danish Development Minister Ulla Tørnæs put the cat among the pigeons in Denmark recently when she dared to suggest that perhaps sanctions weren’t working, and that if only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was able to speak publicly, she would probably agree. "If I look at whether sanctions have helped to benefit the civilian population in Myanmar, I have to say that this is not the case. Myanmar is isolated and closed. Seen from a developmental perspective, it might be relevant to raise the question of access by tourists to Myanmar. There is no doubt that if tourists came to Myanmar, contacts would be made between the civilian population and other parts of the world.” She added that such contacts would create a fertile soil for greater internal pressure on the junta. She therefore planned to raise the matter for discussion at the next meeting of EU Development Ministers, whether they should still support the invitation by Aung San Suu Kyi to stay away. Retorted Thomas Petersen, a Danish trade union activist these many years: “We are not here to tell the Burmese people what to think”. I would hazard the guess, though, that 99 percent of the Burmese people would agree with Ulla Tørnæs rather than with Thomas Petersen. Ms Tørnæs has actually been to Myanmar, and so speaks from her own observation on the ground. I somehow doubt that Mr Petersen has ever been to Myanmar.

Ms Tørnæs will have a difficult time persuading some of her hard-line EU colleagues. It is not that what she says does not make absolutely sound economic and humanitarian common sense. It is simply that it is seen as politically unacceptable to appear in any way to “reward” the military regime for continuing to behave as badly as ever. President Bush said as much to Burmese scholars, politicians and commentators he recently met over lunch in Bangkok, quaintly described by the international media as “dissidents”, though the questions they asked gave the President and particularly his advisers much food for thought, for their concerns were rather more nuanced and perceptive than anything he might have heard from the Ayatollahs of Activism in Washington. The President duly raised Myanmar a few days later with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who no doubt listened politely, but reports suggest that there was no meeting of minds. The US-China relationship in any case has more important issues at stake.

The campaign against tourism has been led by the British, based on fallacious arguments advanced by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about the alleged financial benefit to the military regime from tourist income and on other comments she is reported to have made. Between 2002 and 2007, international visitor traffic to Myanmar, including business travel, has hovered between 217,000 (2002) and 247,000 (2007) and gross income between US$ 100 million (2002) and US$ 182 million (2007). These figures are so miniscule that by the time operating costs, interest, taxation and depreciation have been met, little if anything remains by way of net profit to reward overseas investors who are the principal owners of all international class hotels. When you compare these figures with the 14,460,000 tourists who visited Thailand last year, and the 4,171,000 who went to Vietnam, earning respectively over US$ 14,425 million for Thailand and US$ 4,365 million for Vietnam, it is apparent that Thailand earns in only 4 days and Vietnam in only 13 days what Myanmar earns in a year.

Asian visitors to Myanmar are rising steadily as a percentage of all visitors, from 56.78 percent (2006) to 58.64 percent (2007) to 65.70 percent (1st Half 2008). European visitors, on the other hand, have shown a slow decline from 29.13 percent (2006) to 27.74 percent (2007) to 19.76 percent (1st Half 2008). Increasingly, new tourist facilities throughout South East Asia are coming on stream catering to the growing number of Asian visitors more than to the relatively static number of European visitors. French, German and Italian visitors to Myanmar all outnumber UK visitors by a ratio of at least two to one. French, German and Italian Ministers however choose to leave their citizens to make up their own minds about whether to visit Myanmar, unlike the sententious discouragement by British Ministers.

An analysis by the World Travel and Tourism Council of prospects for tourism to Myanmar in 2008 sees likely income from tourism in 2008 at a modest US$ 146 million, equivalent to about 3.7 percent of foreign currency earnings. The industry will provide some 1,297,000 jobs, representing 5.8 percent of total employment, of which 645,000 jobs will be in “direct industry” employment. Government expenditure is estimated at some US$ 6 million, which probably eats up whatever they derive from taxation and land leases, whose payment is in serious arrears by the industry which is scarcely a profit-making business. In opposing travel and tourism to Myanmar, the EU in general and the British Government in particular are unashamedly seeking to disrupt the lives of the 1,297,000 Burmese people who make a living from the industry, and on whom their families depend for support. I hope that when Parliament resumes in October, Ministers will think hard before they repeat their spurious mantra that EU sanctions “are directed only against the military regime and their supporters” when any reasonable analysis of the effects of sanctions, if only one were ever published, would show that it is the people who suffer as the effects are simply passed down to them.

British Ministers may perhaps be forgiven for their craven subservience to the Ayatollahs of Activism in this country because they operate under very strict guidelines from the Prime Minister himself. His predecessor Tony Blair was in the vanguard of action against “holiday-makers” in February 2005, with the support of some 70 “celebrities” and also Lib-Dem and Conservative Party leaders at the time. After the repression of street protests last August and September led by Buddhist monks and political activists, Gordon Brown gave instructions that there must be further sanctions, and hapless officials racked their brains to find suitable targets. The Prime Minister already publicly committed himself last October to further sanctions, including a ban on “investment”, whatever that might mean, for in practice there has been no EU investment of any consequence in Myanmar this century. The shadow, though, is often more important in the world of politics than the substance, so it is fair warning to EU Ministers and officials that the honeymoon of humanitarian engagement which resulted from the UK response to the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis will soon be over and that, despite an exemplary contribution from the UK of some £40 million in humanitarian aid and support, well ahead of any other bilateral contribution, there can be no longer-term development assistance and any improvement in the living conditions of the Burmese people generally will be blocked in the interests of political correctness. It is revealing that at his appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 10 August, Gordon Brown not only put on a confident political performance, but also revealed his one wish before he was finished with British politics: “I want Aung San Suu Kyi to be not only released, but to be in power in Burma.” The unending misfortunes of The Lady clearly prey on his mind, and in these circumstances David Miliband, despite his leadership aspirations, is most unlikely to contest His Master’s Voice on the issue of sanctions.

Accordingly a ban on timber, metals and precious stones and their products was added last November to the list of EU measures, though it took lawyers some three months to draft the Regulations, so complex in practice was the codification of the political decision. The new restrictive measures adopted represent only about 1 percent of Myanmar’s total exports, but these unexpectedly available and scarce natural resources were at once taken up most gratefully by China, India and Thailand, thus integrating the Burmese economy even more closely with that of their neighbours who are likely to be even more reluctant as a result to pay any heed to the US and EU call on them to join them in their sanctions campaign. Thai entrepreneurs in particular are not at all pleased that EU sanctions seem to be targeted more against them than against the Burmese, for the prohibition on logging within Thailand has meant that the materials for most timber products and furniture manufactures in the Western and Central Provinces of Thailand originate in Myanmar. EU importers are required to show that wood and furniture imports from Thailand have no Burmese content, which for most of them is quite impossible. Thai and Singaporean jewellers are likewise fretting over EU insistence that gems and jewellery imported into the EU should have no Myanmar content, which must make life very difficult. Banking transactions must similarly be a veritable nightmare for European importers from South East Asia since any transactions related however indirectly to Burmese materials in these sectors are unlawful and could have repercussions for the persons involved.

There are however reports that the EU are seeking to resolve the detrimental aspects of current sanctions by a more rational approach, which might help the 1,000 or more Burmese businesses targeted, not because their owners are close to the regime, but solely because they have the misfortune to be in particular commercial sectors of the economy. One of those indicted was Dr Thant Kyaw Kaung whose father U Thaw Kaung is a Member of the Myanmar Historical Commission trained in librarianship at the University of London. Dr Thant’s “Nandawun Souvenir Shop” appears as No. 668 in Annex 5 of the latest EU Regulations, the result of a bizarre process of selection of furniture and jewellery exporters by unknown officials, but who clearly have little or no knowledge of the Burmese scene and of who their best friends might be.

Derek Tonkin
Chairman Network Myanmar

eTN Inbox: The Struggle to engage Myanmar
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