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A price too high

(Photo: AP)

April 22, 2014

In a quite naked display of greed, international business continues to pile into Burma, desperate for a chance to grab lucrative deals. Until recently Washington has apparently held back but now US entrepreneurs, who have long complained that they are missing out, have been given the green light and extensive governmental backing to win themselves a bit of the action.

By sanctioning the restoration of normal commercial and business links, outside governments, particularly those of Europe and North America, which normally make such a fuss about human rights and good governance, are throwing away a key lever that could have caused the military-appointed government of former Gen. Thein Sein to take positive steps to deal with the plight of Burma’s minorities, not least the Muslim Rohingya.

In the final analysis, every country prospers from its international trade. Despite two world wars and military interventions to protect access to natural resources, the Twentieth Century generally agreed that the growth of worldwide business, in which every country had a stake, was a key underpinning of peace. Generally it had to be an exceptional issue that would cause countries to risk their comfort and prosperity by going to war with each other.

The resulting globalization, which has so far dominated the new century, has demonstrated its drawbacks as well as its advantages. The financial collapse from 2008 meant that the cold caught on Wall Street was quickly contracted by many other economies. It has taken a tough five years to recover. Now there are fresh fears that a new financial chill coming from Beijing will in its turn affect most other partners of the close-knit globalized community.

Yet the dominance of the trade imperative cannot be used to ignore great wrongs. Obama, whose supporters still maintain that he is the most ethical president since Jimmy Carter, could have taken the lead in ending the isolation into which the brutal Burmese military junta had been plunged. He could have insisted that the sanctions be removed in stages, coinciding with genuine human rights improvements within the country, for the many minorities including the Rohingya and the Kachins.

But despite some pious noises from Obama himself and his then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Washington exerted no real leverage as its businessmen began to angle for deals. Last week the US government revealed the setting up of a key commercial service office in Burma, giving full-throated support to US business.

The sanctions are, in effect, now a dead letter. US business will be dealing with Burma, regardless of the plight of the country’s many minorities. It is this self-same American eagerness to trade that saw Big Business follow US troops into Iraq with what would turn out to be ultimately unfulfilled dreams of the big reconstruction payola. Cynics might say that the selfsame motive drove the US-coordinated destruction of Gaddafi in Libya. Now it appears that the business lobbyists on Capitol Hill have persuaded the administration to ease the profit-pinching sanctions on Iran, even though Tehran shows no sign of coming clean on its nuclear program. The sanctions that were bringing the Iranian regime to its knees are being loosened like a tourniquet, in the hope that it will be US companies that will flow into Tehran’s economic bloodstream.

No one can question the need for businesses everywhere to prosper. What must be questioned is the price paid for that prosperity. In Burma it is clearly too high.

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