Carrots for the General

Edward B. Rackley

Pencils ready? Here’s today’s five-second brain teaser: What incentives succeed in getting autocrats to relinquish power peacefully? The use of sticks and carrots to bring about reform is fertile fodder for political theory, yet in practice the tools of the trade are limited and primitive. Privation of goods or commerce is common in today’s climate; chest-thumping and bellicose posturing, another favorite, is practiced by the entire animal kingdom. Carrots, as opposed to sticks, work wonders with children but see little success between nations. Why is that?

In the case of Burma under General Than Shwe and his military junta, no carrots have been tried, to my knowledge. Sticks in many shapes and sizes have been brandished and swung, to little effect. Economic sanctions, asset freezes, arms embargos and travel bans are currently in effect by the US and EU. I posed the question to a Burmese dissident last week. He reflected a moment, then smiled and said, ‘A missile launch pad in Thailand, that’s all we need’. No sticks, no carrots, just elimination: everyman’s fantasy. Were regime change so easy!

Unhappythanshwegray_2Western policies designed to weaken the junta have been contradictory, perhaps even self-sabotaging. The State Department claims its trade sanctions have encouraged ASEAN countries to adopt a more critical stance on Burma; this is correlation, not causation. ASEAN countries continue their waffling course of ‘constructive engagement’, meaning: do business and look the other way. The US was alone in pursuing sanctions for over a decade until the ill-fated ‘Saffron Revolution’ last September, at which point the EU implemented similar measures.

Critics of these sanctions, embargoes and other disincentives highlight their feel-good, symbolic character—much like Bush’s declaration of genocide in Darfur being followed by cooperation with Khartoum on terrorist intelligence matters. As with Sudan, sanctions against Burma arguably strengthen the hand of ruling authorities by creating a scapegoat for their own internal policy failures and narrowing the opportunity for Burmese to expand their economic, social, and cultural contacts with reform-minded nations. The conservative CATO institute, for instance, makes a case for re-opening commercial relations with Burma, arguing that investment and trade brings technology, better working conditions, and increased exposure to democratic ideas.

Burmese pressure groups and international human rights agencies have lobbied the UN for Security Council action to target Burma’s gas and oil industries, the junta’s primary source of revenue. Such a vote was never tabled, as China and Russia would surely veto on the grounds of the principle of non-interference, their almighty sacred cow and miracle panacea for any vexing political crisis.

But for those nations who huff and puff and try to blow the junta house down–to what effect? Sanctions that fail to cut off all revenue streams to an offending party are ultimately a non sequitur. And wherever there is oil, there is always political wiggle-room. Extraction rights to Burma’s vast offshore oilfields were accorded to China in 2007, along with contracts to build an overland pipeline leading—where else?—to China.

ThumbThe junta’s economic ties to China, Thailand and India have grown in recent years, meaning a certain Chinese veto of any Security Council Resolution to pressure or punish Burmese leadership. Because Burma is a strategic nexus—it flanks both China and India and provides access to major waterways—China has focused much of its recent regional diplomatic drive on Burma. The result has been growing economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries.

As in other closed countries whose citizens suffer armed conflict (Northern Sudan), political persecution (Zimbabwe), extreme resource scarcity (Zimbabwe, North Korea), populist rhetoric and disastrous governance (Cuba, Venezuela), survival of the ruling regime means trading with countries for which morality, politics and commerce are distinct affairs. Resource-rich Sudan has little business with Western countries now; Khartoum looks like a mini-Beijing with all the cranes and Chinese construction companies everywhere. Even beleaguered old Mugabe asked China to bail him out several months ago.

Me and my money

And so Burma’s military rulers remain solvent despite an array of sanctions and international opprobrium, selling oil and gas to India, Thailand and China, another state willing to kill large numbers of its own people to stay in power. ‘Burma’s generals act as if they are immune from worldwide condemnation because they’re still getting cash from foreign-financed oil and gas projects. It’s time to cut them off’, Human Rights Watch argued in a 2007 report.

Burma’s vast majority lives under great hardship and does not see any tangible benefit from outside investment in the oil and gas industry. Most Burmese homes lack electricity altogether, and urban residents face frequent power outages, even as Burma’s natural gas is used to power Thailand’s cities. ‘Burma’s generals have used the promise of oil and gas supplies to buy the silence of energy-hungry countries, including China and India’ (HRW).

Burma is following the path tread by many African countries run by semi-autocracies or sham democracies. Human rights, democratic reform, and good governance are the sticks that accompany western development aid to developing countries. Tired of being subjected to conditions on foreign aid by moralizing and duplicitous Western countries, many African nations are turning to China, Malaysia, India and Thailand to conduct business. Because if trade and aid are available from partners who claim no moral high ground or pretense of superiority, the door to cooperation and exchange of ideas is wide open.

Severe shortage of carrots

One recent instance of Western contradiction: as the Saffron Revolution unfolded in late September, Gordon Brown effused that ‘The age of impunity is over for anyone who commits crimes against the people of Burma.’ After Cyclone Nargis hit in early May, senior UN relief official John Holmes visited the country’s worst-hit areas. As Kouchner and company weighed in on a possible ‘humanitarian invasion’–airdrops and cross-border smuggling of relief supplies and staff–Holmes defended the UN precedent of working with Burma’s military regime. So on the one hand we hear blustery declarations that ‘the age of impunity is over’, while the usual round of UN Special Envoys continue their humble entreaties at the threshold of the junta’s door. In short: multiple diplomatic strategies, all involving sticks, all perfectly contradictory.

Contradictions that were readily manipulated by the regime. After promises to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to allow more aid workers in, the junta then extended Aung San Suu Kyi’s period of detention. ASEAN country officials offered insight into Burmese perceptions of missteps in the Western diplomatic dance. ‘They are suspicious of humanitarian aid serving as a camouflage for regime change,’ the Singapore Ambassador to the UN explained, ‘a perception that is not entirely unreasonable when some [western] countries have talked about invoking responsibility to protect and mounting relief operations without host government permission’.

One wonders ultimately if sanctions represent the end of influence: so many sticks that a carrot becomes inconceivable. Here in Washington I hear political talk in some circles of ‘going through China or India’ to reach Burma’s junta. Intermediaries become necessary when one’s own efforts fail, do they not, so is it not therefore best to fix what’s broken? Alas, I forget the first rule in politics: save thy face.

Many Burmese dissidents, and its government in exile, are looking to the Olympics as a way to pressure China, as has happened with Darfur. There is the coincidence that the Games start on August 8, 2008, the anniversary of the 1988 uprisings in which at least 3000 demonstrators were killed.

Is Burma on track for a possible implosion? Economic decay is severe following twenty years of gross mismanagement, and oil revenue is not enough to right the junta’s sinking ship. But how long must the Burmese wait and pray? The internal collapse or combustion of autocratic states does occur, as happened in the Soviet Union and its client states, particularly in Africa. Predicting when and how this happens escapes even the best analysts.