By LALIT K JHA / WASHINGTON
Accusing the Burmese regime of looting the country, a prominent world expert on Burma urged the US on Thursday to tighten its economic sanctions policy against the junta.
Further financial sanctions were necessary to protect Burma against the wholesale theft of its financial and natural resources, Dr Sean Turnell, an Associate Professor of Economics at MacQuarie University in Australia, told a US congressional hearing.
Turnell charged that foreign exchange revenue from Burma’s exports of natural gas were being disposed of offshore in ways that brought about the least advantage to the Burmese people.
Testifying before a hearing by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on “Human Rights Abuses in Burma,” Turnell said: “Now is decidedly not the time to lift the economic sanctions levied against a regime that, for nearly fifty years, has impoverished as it has abused in other ways, the people of Burma.” If sanctions were lifted, he said, it would only help the regime increase its stranglehold on the country.
Turnell, who also heads “Burma Economy Watch,” reminded the panel that Burma remained a centre of “prime money laundering concern,” according to the OECD and other international agencies.
The administration of President Barack Obama has announced it is reviewing US policy on Burma, and there have also been moves within the EC for a review of European sanctions against Burma.
Western opponents of sanctions argue they hit innocent Burmese people harder than the regime, but Turnell challenged this view.
“Sanctions are not the cause of Burma’s poverty, nor do they obstruct the country’s military regime from engaging in economic reform or from applying policies conducive to economic growth,” he argued.
“The most significant ‘sanctioner’ on Burma is none other than the country’s ruling regime itself, which has created an environment in which genuine transformative economic activity is scarcely possible, let alone similarly efficacious foreign investment or trade.”
Burma’s internal political-economy denied the country access to the international economy, and from the potential gains from the international division of labour so effectively exploited by its neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and by countries such as China, Turnell said.
Claiming that Burma’s state is almost wholly predatory, and is not so much parasitic of its host as all-consuming, he said: “If in other countries ruling regimes behave occasionally as racketeers in skimming a ‘cut’ from prosperous business, then Burma’s is more like a looter—destroying what it can neither create nor understand.”
Financial sanctions, Turnell said, are extraordinarily well-targeted. The average person in Burma has no access to a bank account, much less a need or desire to engage the international financial system.
This is not true for the members of the SPDC or the elite connected to them, said Turnell. As such, the denial of access to the US financial system to this group sends precisely the right signal, to precisely the right people, he added.