Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

With More Sanctions, Burmese Chafe under Further Isolation

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

With More Sanctions, Burmese Chafe under Further Isolation

Article excerpt

During the rainy season, Buddhist monks in this coastal town near the Thai border normally retreat into their cave and forest monasteries to meditate and chant prayers from theological texts. It's a world away from the material struggles of ordinary life, and a timeworn ritual. This year, however, the more proximate worry for these monks is the widespread economic hardship that underpinned the recent protests and appears to be worsening. After all, these aren't normal times in Burma (Myanmar), where military rulers put down a nationwide protest movement last month, outraging policymakers worldwide and sparking calls for punitive measures against the regime. This global call for action has created a dilemma for governments seeking to rebuke Burma's military junta: How to punish the ruling generals without inflicting further misery on Burma's blighted population? Even without sanctions, many Burmese already feel economically isolated because the government crackdown is scaring away valuable traders and visitors from neighboring Asian countries and raising the cost of living. "We need to know what's really happening in our country," says one bespectacled, elderly monk who gathered here with a group of clerics to watch foreign news broadcasts and call friends inside and outside Burma. Kawthaung is a relatively open trading town with close links to neighboring Thailand. "The government is trying to close the mind of the people ... but now we need to open our minds." The isolation is having a measurable impact on the economy. Burma's currency, the kyat, plummeted to a black-market rate of 900 to the US dollar last year from 200 in 1997 and is now 1,500. Kawthaung does much of its trade with Thailand, a 30-minute boat ride away, and the weak currency is a bind. "We don't know where it's going to stop," says a local shop owner who buys rice and other foodstuffs from Thailand. "The lower it goes, the more we have to pay for goods. It's becoming difficult to do things like eat or buy fuel." As one of the junta's more vociferous critics, the US already maintains a ban on imports from Burma and prohibits Americans from doing business with its military leadership. The European Union plans to extend its range of sanctions and may opt to stop imports of Burmese items such as timber and gemstones. But such a ban would carry a human cost in such a threadbare economy, says Lars Backstrom, Finland's ambassador to Burma and neighboring Thailand. "The generals aren't suffering, whatever our sanctions are. Should the little man be told to pay the price? I don't think so." A sharp increase in diesel and cooking oil in August brought people into the streets of the commercial capital of Rangoon. These initial protests over fuel costs and transport fares later swelled into huge monk-led marches that were the biggest outpouring of antigovernment sentiment in Burma since 1988. …

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