4 Dec 2009

Sanctions punish people


Before I go anywhere, it’s a valid question which needs addressing. The answer can never be a resounding, unhesitating yes. It seldom is in life. Travelling to countries with unpleasant governments does not meet with the approval of everyone. Let me explain why I strongly believe it is the right thing to come to a country that very few people know much about from the inside.
I met a man who had been travelling in Burma nine times in nine years. Not once in all that time did any person in the country tell him he shouldn't have come. Tony Blair - amongst other so-called esteemed (but obviously not informed) experts - called for people to boycott this country. Please remind me how many times he has actually visited this country. How many times has he spoken to or listened to any ordinary people living inside the country?
Are we all supposed to unquestioningly defer to such high profile people and lose all ability to think and act independently for ourselves? Why should the likes of Tony Blair and Bono, or indeed any hectoring campaigner, dictate where we should and should not go in the world? Who gave them the right to preach to others and impose their own morals?
Travel - and I write here with a conviction based on no shortage of extensive and diverse experiences - is an incredibly powerful force for good. It can be extremely effective in raising awareness, deepening understanding and broadening knowledge and sharing vital insights.
Travel, tourism and trade, if conducted with a sufficiently open, well-informed mind, independent thought, cultural sensitivity and a discretionary purse, can affect things in a very positive way and do a great deal to open up a country.
In particular travel and tourism can afford a country’s people the precious opportunity to open up their lives to the outside world.
To some people, just by going to the country I am effectively contributing to the human rights abuses of the Myanmar government. Of course a small amount of money is likely to unavoidably end up in their pockets. But I am extremely discreet and careful where I choose to spend my dollars.
I always try to travel as locals do. I try to eat where they eat and so on. And I talk to people, lots of people. I listen eagerly and respectfully to what they tell me. I am offering an income to them and an opportunity to opine which they would not otherwise have enjoyed.
How exactly can people ever be free when we keep them isolated? You tell me in which other ways are we going to so fully and comprehensively inform ourselves about a country whose regime thrives on being 'isolated'?
This country is anything but isolated to those who run it and the sooner we stop pretending that sanctions - over twenty years worth - are doing anything good for the ordinary people in Myanmar, the better. Lives depend on it. They depend on us being well-informed, realistic and genuinely open-minded. The sanctions have been in place for two decades and they patently have not worked. What has occurred, or been allowed to occur, over the last half a century has been the sad dilapidation of a proud country.
Under which of the following circumstances do you think a government is more likely to repress its people?
a) with no one allowed in to see anything?
b) with international visitors, like me, walking around asking awkward questions, probing for answers, taking photos, recording memories and conversations, interacting with local people...?
Ultimately, is it not better to be as well informed as possible instead of keeping things concealed in the dark?
How exactly am I legitimising a nasty government when I intend to do no more than share with you what I see, hear and what people I meet tell me? If people want to feel ethically better about themselves for choosing to boycott and to help massage a troubled conscience, that’s up to them.
But do you know what most boycotts and sanctions tend to do? They make the poor poorer while the rich and powerful elite drive fancier cars and live in more luxurious houses. The people at the stop show not the slightest inclination of being particularly discomfited by gaping discrepancies in wealth. They thrive.
Who really pays the price of isolation? Who really has to make the big life-changing sacrifices of having sanctions imposed against them. You've guessed it, the people at the bottom. Who really gets punished? The people who don’t matter and are easily forgotten about.
So why keep pushing a country, any country, backwards? The only things we end up sanctioning - if we take a long, hard, cold and critical look at the effectiveness of sanctions - are the regime's own propaganda, when we should be doing all we can to help demolish it. There are many similarities with Iran.
Boycotts can never be perfect or consistent anyway. Nor are they ever strictly adhered to anywhere near as much as their proponents and supporters like to convince (or delude) themselves they are. Rather like communism perhaps, an attractive and appealing sounding idea in strict idealistic classroom theory but totally unworkable and even counter-productive in real life practice.
Who is going to be brave (or foolish) enough to tell the Chinese that they should stop doing business with a country on their own doorstep? Or the Indians? Who is going to tell the French and the Germans that they have no morals for going on government-controlled expensive package tours? They'll all just laugh at you dismissively.
I happen to buy a cup of coffee in a government owned hotel and suddenly, according to some noisy idealists bashing me with their righteous morality, I am responsible for the mass murder of innocent babies.
By the same perverse logic, are all smokers responsible for the deaths and exploitation of children in developing countries by big tobacco companies because they purchase cigarettes? Are all American taxpayers responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians in Iraq because they happen to pay taxes to the American government?
Besides, it matters very little what we ethically chose to do about Burma anyway because of one word: China. China controls much of the economy here already. It quietly got on with asserting itself and because we all stayed away, held our noses put our fingers in our ears and covered our eyes we are near blind to it.
Tourism is anyway a drop in the economic ocean to this government, peanuts in its fingers compared to the revenue feasts it generates from selling gas, teak and oil to the likes mainly China, but also Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan.
Through apathy, misguided and ill-informed ideology and complacency we have left an entire people in near muted silence. We should be encouraging as many people as possible to go and see and listen for themselves.
Its like one Burmese man said to me:
"We are alive and I can feed my family because of tourists. Why is my country so neglected and forgotten? Please ask more people to come and speak to us."
And the words of another:
"Go and see for yourself. Listen for yourself. Then you can decide. What will you know, or anyone know, if you never come and never speak to us and us to you?"
Myanmar is a country where the government seeks to do all it can to stop outsiders going to places it doesn’t want them to go. The generals want to stop people looking and seeing, hearing and reporting.
The government of Myanmar tries to hide things and our governments and politicians in the west have helped them to hide things by continuing to isolate them more and more. Western governments, pushed on by noisy lobbyists, have kept adding the cement of sanctions to the immovability of an unpleasant dictatorship.
Many people in my own country might think we are isolating or punishing the nasty generals. The reality is that the people who are isolated and punished the most are the ordinary people trapped inside the country. But who will, or who can, come and speak to them and listen to them?
I am not aware of many government representatives, or indeed journalists, either willing or able to go out of their way and come and find out for themselves the realities of life for these isolated people inside their own isolated country.
If we are honest, often it is easier or more convenient for us to see a different country or the people from it in a more unfavourable light. Doing so makes us feel slightly better and more reassured about our own country and upbringing. We cannot help but think of certain people from certain countries in certain ways.
Yet, it is all but impossible for us to be objective in making sweeping judgements or definitive definitions. Stereotypes are easily reinforced through (largely negative) media reporting and in some ways they help to reassure us of our own identity by reminding us how much more developed or civilised our own ways of life are. Supposedly.
But because most people never have been and probably never will be exposed to the realities of life inside a country as foreign and exotic as Burma, our understanding of it (and similar closed off places like Iran and Afghanistan) will inevitably be limited and simplistic.
For me, this is a strong part of why I like to travel: to try to see a country and its people as they really are.
Frankly, it is just silly and naïve to somehow claim that by isolating people you are somehow going to eventually make them more free. How exactly are people going to be more free when they become more and more isolated and closed off?
People inside Myanmar have been made to live in hindered silence. We have been doing little more than making them almost totally mute altogether. Is muting people and deafening ourselves really smart and constructive policy?
There are plenty of reasons not to come to Burma, many of them deceptively seductive. It is easy to be put off. You don’t come to Myanmar for the food, the shopping or the nightlife. Those that do come are more likely to be here for the business or political reasons.
As well as having as many conversations with as many Myanmar people as I could, it also occurred to me to ask other Western travellers or tourists, when I encountered them, why or how they had chosen to be in a country which plenty of people thought it was wrong to visit.
‘How can it be wrong to be giving an income to ordinary people?’ one woman told me. ‘How can it be wrong to talk to them, to listen to them and share information and experiences?’
‘It doesn’t make sense to punish them, normal people, just because they don’t have a very nice government. In fact, can you tell me a country that does have a nice government, a perfect and well behaved government?’ I couldn’t. ‘I mean if people were only allowed to travel to countries with nice governments there wouldn’t be many countries in the world we could go to!’
The more people I spoke to and engaged with inside Myanmar, the more assured I felt in doing the right thing.
I cannot repeat this any more clearly or more often:
Ordinary people everywhere just want the freedom to get on with their lives. They don’t particularly care about governments. They do care about their families and they do care about having enough money to eat. They care about being able to work and live without fear.
When we, on the outside, inadvertently or unintentionally, make life harder for the ordinary people, we risk not only making them worse off but also losing their support.
As a Burmese friend of mine said to me,
‘Go and see for yourself. Listen for yourself. Hear our stories. Then you can decide. Tell me, what will you, or anyone else, know if you never come and speak to us? What will you learn from staying on the outside?’
And, as one of the brilliantly effervescent Moustache Brothers told me with startling candour, ‘We are alive because of tourists. We want you all to come. We want a Trojan horse!’

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