A guest blog post by John Moore on the issue of sanctions argues that much of the New Zealand left make a bad call when they demand the boycott of oppressed third world countries such as Burma/Myanmar. [Read more below]
It is little over 4 months ago that Burma/Myanmar was on front pages as its regime brutally repressed peaceful protesters. Thankfully for the military junta, international attention has been forestalled for the meantime as the government makes a few token concessions to the opposition movements and world focus is back on areas such as Iraq and Israel/Palestine.
I began thinking about Burma/Myanmar again when I read a recent Guardian article on the Burmese comedy satirists the Moustache Brothers. Earlier last year my partner and I travelled to Myanmar/Burma. We realised this was a controversial move as Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), has called for a boycott of the country by tourists. Our resolve to ignore Suu Kyi’s ‘tourist boycott’ was strengthened on our last night in the city of Mandalay when we went and saw the infamous Moustache Brothers. These three men are a comedy trio whose act, in large part, mocks the military regime. Two of it's members have been previously imprisoned and locals are not allowed to see them. One of the brothers Par Par Lay was detained again for a month last year after the protests in September. The military regime has turned a blind eye to foreign tourists seeing their act. Although the brothers are strong supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, they implicitly disagree with her stance over tourism. One of the brothers told me to tell tourists to see them as this protects them from government repression. This reinforced my own resolve to visit Myanmar/Burma despite calls for a ‘boycott’.
Aung San Suu Kyi has coupled her calls for a ‘tourist boycott’ with demands for Western governments to impose a general economic boycott on Burma/Myanmar. Here in New Zealand trade unions, and other organisations have made similar calls. While condemnation against the regime is to be commended, some thoughtful reflection should be given towards the call for generalised economic blockades against such dictatorships.
From Clinton to Bush, American presidents have consistently called for a trade boycott against the Burmese military regime, and have to some degree enforced sanctions. Given this enthusiasm from such, questions should be asked about the usefulness, and the dangers, of lining up with what can be called imperialist powers against third world dictatorships and despots.
Various local organizations and trade unions have campaigned for what are effectively ‘imperialist sanctions’ against the Myanmar/Burmese regime. New Zealand’s Socialist Worker organization, has called for all New Zealand, as well as the Government, to divest from Myanmar/Burma:
All NZ companies who profit from slave labour in Burma should be the targets for future protests- NZ does 4.4 million dollars of dairy business with the Myanmar regime, and the Super Fund invests in Total Oil's exploitation of Burma's reserves. Helen Clarke wants to sign a free trade deal with the regime. All should immediately be stopped. There can be no trade with a slave labour regime. (From: Burma - One Solution: Revolution!)
The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU), representing over 350 000 workers, has made similar calls (see: CTU calls for Support for Burma Democracy Movement).
Calls for western governments and organisations such as the United Nations to boycott reactionary regimes sow real and dangerous illusions in the progressiveness (or potential progressiveness) of these bodies. [Also, such calls act to blur the sharp distinctions between capitalist and imperialist interests and the interests of the working class.] The US state has had a clear agenda in campaigning for sanctions against Burma/Myanmar. The Clinton Administration’s demand for sanctions in the 1990s were partly based on the military regime’s flouting of IMF and World Bank recommendations. The US aimed to open up Myanmar/Burma to capitalist exploitation and hoped to impose on its economy a strict neo-liberal structural-adjustment programme. This was made clear with Clinton’s address to congress in 1990 when he condemned the military regime flouting of IMF and World Bank recommendations (See: New Sources of Opposition).
US neo-con John Bolton, clearly not an ally of the oppressed of Myanmar/Burma, has campaigned for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to place Burma/Myanmar on the top of its agenda. Ostensibly Bolton’s concerns about Burma/Myanmar were centred on issues of international peace and security (See: The UNSC Backlash?).
Those concerned for the plight of those suffering under reactionary regimes should oppose general boycotts because of the fact they can actually hurt the oppressed in those countries. Such generalised boycotts often result in layoffs within those countries and further impoverishment of the masses. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq throughout the 1990s resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens. The impact on the regime itself was highly questionable. In 1998, the outgoing co-ordinator of the UN oil-for-food deal in Iraq, Denis Halliday, made a scathing attack on the policy of sanctions branding them '’a totally bankrupt concept’. First, he said, 'It doesn't impact on governance effectively and instead it damages the innocent people of the country’, and second, ‘It probably strengthens the leadership and further weakens the people of the country.’ Halliday also cited the devastating impact on the population when he emphasised the ‘4,000 to 5,000 children dying unnecessarily every month due to the impact of sanctions because of the breakdown of water and sanitation, inadequate diet and the bad internal health situation’ (See: the BBC report Middle East UN official blasts Iraq sanctions).
Economic boycotts should also be opposed because of their impact on the ability of the masses in these countries to organize. Sanctions act to atomize workers, through unemployment, and so decrease the ability of workers in that country to struggle against their rulers. Although boycotts can sometimes be used to force concrete concessions, normally they only succeed in weakening working people’s capacity to struggle.
Calls for generalised boycotts against reactionary third world regimes, from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF Government to the post-coup regime in Fiji, and now against the generals in Burma/Myanmar, are often based on a false liberal dichotomy between ‘democratic’ capitalist states and dictatorships. Liberals often show no problem lining up with their ‘democratic’ rulers, whether in America, Europe or New Zealand, against ‘nasty’ countries such as Burma/Myanmar or Fiji. Yet, the absurdity of such positions is easily highlighted when the reactionary role of imperialist powers such as the United States and Britain, supported by minor imperialist powers such as New Zealand and Australia, is weighed up against the actions of third-rate despotic regimes such as Burma/Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered due to western aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet there is no widespread call by leftist groups for a general boycott of goods produced by the powers whom are involved in those conflicts.
Calls by much of the NZ left for a generalized boycott of Myanmar/Burma clearly does not serve the interests of workers and the oppressed of that country. An independent strategy is needed, one that stands in strong contrast to the New Zealand state, the UN and other capitalist bodies.
(For a more contemporary polemic against combining workers actions with capitalist sanctions in regards to Apartheid South Africa see Workers Sanctions & Capitalist Sanctions: ‘Fire and Water').