Salvation by Starvation

Recently, a man named Bo Kyi came to speak here on campus. He is the Joint-Secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, an organization based on the Thailand-Burma border. He spoke of his imprisonment under the brutal military Junta that rules what is now known as Myanmar, and of the work he is doing to try and bring liberty to his people. His comments were touching and his experiences were quite harrowing; however, one of the suggestions he made to us about how we can help struck me as very odd.

He said that “One of the most important and valuable actions of the US has been to implement sanctions on Burma through the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act.” He then urged us to “Tell your Congressional representatives and President Bush to renew sanctions on Burma.” These sanctions were renewed last summer and there was much accompanying rhetoric about how important they were in helping the poor oppressed Burmese people. To many people, sanctions probably seem like a reasonable and effective way of helping tyrannized populations and punishing brutal regimes. But upon further examination, they do just the opposite.

Sanctions have been a popular tool of foreign policy among prosperous Western nations over the last century. Because the West adopted market economies earlier and more thoroughly than the rest of the world, their prosperity made it possible to ostracize poorer, less developed countries without doing severe damage to their own economies. The economic power wielded by the United States has allowed us to essentially take the position that, "since we control so much of the world's economy, we're going to starve into submission any regime we don't like." This policy has been used extensively to further U.S. foreign policy and expand our global empire ever since the WWI era.

What is strange about all this is that sanctions continue to be used despite their almost universal failure in achieving their goals. Take the U.S. sanctions against Cuba for instance. They have been in place in one form or another since 1963. Today Castro is still in power. Cuba is still very poor and very little if any progress has been made toward freedom or prosperity for the Cuban people. U.S. sanctions against Iraq resulted in the disappearance of the Iraqi middle class, the destruction of the Iraqi economy, and the starvation and death of untold thousands of Iraqi children. Sanctions against Haiti were at one point allegedly responsible for the deaths of 1,000 infants a month, while having no beneficial effects. In North Korea the results have been similarly bleak.

This is only one side of the story. Not only do sanctions result in poverty, starvation and death for the populations of targeted countries, they help bestow a mantle of much-needed legitimacy on despotic rulers. Rather than producing political reform and opposition to tyranny, sanctions often result in an increase of nationalism and support for the current regime. Castro, Saddam and Kim Jong-il have all used the sanctions imposed against them as evidence of U.S. imperialism and as scapegoats on which to blame their poorly performing economies. At the same time they hold themselves up as patriotic champions of national self-sufficiency and independence.

I remember not too long ago having seen a segment on a news program where an American journalist was in North Korea asking villagers about their views on America. When he asked one young man what he thought about Americans, he answered that America was the sworn enemy of his country and that he wanted to join the army so he could fight and kill Americans. This type of xenophobic mentality is easy to cultivate among a population that is poor, hungry and cut off from the outside world.

The logic behind the use of sanctions is one that refuses to recognize the difference between the many people living in a country, and the few who rule it. It is a perverse act of war that targets only civilians. It ignores the fact that the ruling elite live far better than the mass of people, and will continue to do so even as their economy declines and there is less to go around. When push comes to shove it is the rulers who will get what they need and want while the general population starves. It deprives people in both countries of their right to trade and make a living. It breeds animosity, conflict and desperation and often leads to war. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Cordell Hull once said, "When goods cannot cross borders, armies will."

Sanctions impose the value system of the aggressor country on the population of the other, regardless of their feelings on the matter. By passing sanctions against countries because of human rights violations we are essentially saying that we think your right to say what you want about your government trumps your right to eat. Therefore, we won't sell you food or buy your products until your government gives you such rights as we deem necessary for you to live freely. Obviously, if given a choice between the Bill of Rights or a bowl of rice, most starving people will choose the latter. Yet this is exactly the choice we are denying them when we impose economic sanctions.

Another problem with our policy of sanctions against third-world countries is that they are extremely inconsistent. The United States trades heavily with many countries that are hardly bastions of human rights recognition. Among these are China and Vietnam, both of which are still ruled by communist parties and which still refuse to recognize many basic human rights.

The Chinese government has erected possibly the largest spy network in the history of the world, and is unjustly holding untold numbers of political prisoners. There is no democracy in these countries and their people have very limited freedom of speech, press or religion. However, since the benefits of trading with China and other Asian nations are so great, we gladly overlook these shortcomings. If you are an advocate of sanctions in order to promote human rights, you should think about how much of what you currently own and like to buy is produced by people who don't enjoy the same rights you do.

In fact, trade with China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cuba and all other countries is a good thing. Where sanctions breed poverty, starvation, xenophobia, anger, and war, trade brings prosperity, multiculturalism, tolerance and peace. When we trade we are forced by necessity to overcome our ignorance of foreign people. We learn each other's languages and cultures. We come to depend on each other and to see the world as an interconnected whole rather than a chaotic collection of borders, armies and clashing "national interests."

Not only does international trade benefit the populations of both countries, it also is much more effective than sanctions at bringing political reform and recognition of human rights. The more prosperous a people become the more political power they may wield regardless of the system they live under. Once they have progressed beyond a meager subsistence, people can pursue other things that are important to them. As the silver screen's most recent and most British masked avenger said, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” That is unless their people are weak from starvation, devoid of earthly possessions and technologically deprived due to an inability to trade.

Some would no doubt argue that such a desperate economic situation will lead people to rebel against their government, thus paving the way for regime change. Now, without delving into historical evidence, is the probability of such an event happening so great and the superiority of the outcome so sure that we feel justified in starving people and destroying their livelihood in order to incite rebellion? And that's assuming that such a rebellion would be successful and not merely result in massive loss of life and even worse tyranny than before. This is no basis at all for foreign policy and a poor justification for imposing sanctions.

Consider China's history and current situation. The China of the last half century was one of the most despotic places on earth. Its people lived mainly in abject poverty and millions died as a result. The cruelty to which her population was subjected is almost incomprehensible. Yet there was no successful rebellion and no regime change. Despite prolonged international isolation, and universal policy failure, the communist party did not crumble. It is trade that has opened the door for increased liberty in China. If human rights are to prevail there it will be because economic liberalization first blazed the trail.

Today, despite the continuing tight-fisted control exerted by China's communist party over the lives of its citizens, modernization and the transition to a market economy have unleashed powerful forces in that country that I believe will lead to decentralization and greatly expanded individual freedom. We have already seen this process begin and the trend will only gain momentum as the Chinese people become wealthier. Their ability to travel, communicate, and thus to organize will continue to be a relentless thorn in the side of their oppressors. The forces unleashed by trade and economic liberalization, both technological and economic in nature, are too powerful for any government to control indefinitely.

Trade also requires countries to develop consistent, reliable legal systems and property rights laws. No one wants to trade with someone they can't trust, or within a legal system that is unpredictable and indecipherable. It paves the way for economic liberalization and the development of capital and consumer markets. This is precisely what is happening in China, Vietnam and many other places. We could expect similar results if we were to resume trade with Myanmar. Our government doesn't have to sell their government rocket propelled grenades or smart bombs, but banning the sale or import of consumer goods and services, foreign aid and foreign investment is absolutely destructive and unbecoming of a people who claim to believe in liberty and the value of human life. If we want to help the Burmese people, let's start by allowing them access to the necessities of life rather than slowly killing them through forced international isolation.

April 1, 2006