What did the economic sanctions actually bring Myanmar?
Sanne van Oosten
Traveling through Myanmar/Burma is a bit more challenging than traveling through any other Southeast Asian country we have visited so far. Part of this is because many Western countries are imposing economic sanctions on the country in order to pressure the government to reform. But, how useful are these sanctions and how does this change the way in which foreign visitors experience the country?
After the April elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 40 of the 45 seats up for election. Even though they now only have 40 of the 440 seats in parliament, this was a breakthrough for Myanmar. The military junta proved to the world that they are capable of holding, at least it seems so, free and fair elections. Not only that, they have proven that they can accept the outcome even if it isn’t their political party that has won. It is hoped that the military junta will do the same for the general elections in 2015.
Although, even if they do so, there are many more hoops to be jumped before Myanmar can be close to being called a democracy. In order to enforce change, many Western countries (i.e. The United States, Canada, the European Union and Australia) have imposed economic sanctions to pressure the junta to reform.
The effect of these sanctions is subject to much debate. Do the sanctions really put pressure on the military junta to reform? Maybe, the recent elections in which the NLD won so many seats does point in that directions. But nothing is sure about the ulterior motives of the military junta. Furthermore, the April 2012 elections were only the beginning. For change to really take place we need to see what will happen in the general 2015 elections.
Another prevalent question in the sanctions debate is this. Don’t sanctions actually hurt the local population more than they hurt the government? Excluding almost all Western countries from their list of economic partners the business opportunities become even less than they were already. A difficult question arises: who are hurting the economy of Myanmar the most? The government who is mismanaging their economy? Or the Western countries imposing sanctions meant to hurt the government? I cannot answer these questions, as the discussion is still continuing, but I can say that the fact that economic sanctions are imposed on Myanmar/Burma makes the travel experience more difficult, but also more exciting.
No foreign banks do any business with Myanmar, so before leaving you need to take out enough crisp dollar bills to cover all of your travel expenses throughout the trip. As the people of Myanmar are terrified that the bank will not accept their dollars they will only take crisp dollar bills that don’t have a single crease or fold, closely examining every bill you give them. Coca Cola is hard to come by as it is not directly imported into the country, but via Thailand. When available it is quite expensive, so most people drink Star Cola, Myanmar produce. You will find no foreign chain stores or supermarkets in Myanmar/Burma. So, no McDonalds and no 7Eleven. But what does this leave you with? This leaves you with a decidedly unique travel experience.
No place I have ever been to seems so far removed from everything I am familiar with. This is a place where monks and nuns are respected more than celebrities. Where more people, male and female, wear skirt-like sarongs than pants. Where only 0,1% of the people uses the internet. Where most people don’t have a cell-phone. Where women paint their faces with mud-like cream to protect their skin from the sun. Where biking is not a sport or hobby, but the way to get produce from one place to the next. And where wagons sometimes even outnumber combustion engines.
If it turns out that the economic sanctions are doing more damage to the local population than good, they definitely need some serious reconsideration. But from the perspective of a traveler it is creating a more outstanding travel experience than ever. Traveling to Myanmar/Burma is an out of this world experience, nothing like I had ever seen, and I wonder if this had been the case if these economic sanctions were not in effect.