Sanctions undercut opportunity in Myanmar

Everywhere we went, people loved the United States. And yet we didn't see a single American tourist.

My wife, Carol Ann, and I recently visited Myanmar, formerly called Burma. Our trip included CEOs and spouses from Australia to Italy.

Myanmar is not a Third World nation; it's a Fourth World nation, one where scalpels are sterilized in rice cookers -- if you're lucky.

Before its independence in 1948, Burma was the crown jewel of British colonial Asia and had it all. Jewel is no metaphor. This land was and is still knee-deep in sapphires, jade and rubies -- almost 90 percent of the world's harvest, especially the prized blood rubies. It also has oil. And it has great potential for rice from a delta that has perhaps the most fertile land in the world.

Burma also was a World War II front line. After its independence, Burma hobbled along. A military coup quashed democracy in 1962, thousands died in a bloody uprising in 1988. In 1990, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won more than 80 percent of the seats in Parliament, humiliating the generals, who refused to relinquish power. Winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, Suu Kyi now endures a cumulative 12th year of house arrest.

Suu Kyi has a vision, but the power barons are doing their best to make sure she doesn't share it. I talked with more than 50 people -- from entrepreneurs to educators to workers -- but not one could tell me where Myanmar is headed. While this country with a population of 55 million fields the world's 12th-largest standing military, its per-capita income is 150th.

We saw and spoke with many wonderful people. One forum was unforgettable -- standing room only for some of the 125 students I had the privilege to address. Starved for knowledge from the outside world, their questions about the U.S. presence in Iraq were grade-school level. Impossible to e-mail, these students still tap into the Internet in the middle of the night.

Everywhere we went they loved the United States.

What didn't we see on our trip? Not a single American tourist.

Nor did we see the capital. In 2005, the military began moving the capital from Yangon (formerly Rangoon), to Naypyidaw, a boondocks more than 200 miles away.

Nor did we see the travesty of Myanmar at work. Forced labor, child labor and human trafficking remain common. The government is despotic, repressive and provides no services for the people.

Nor did we see the illicit drug factories. A corner of the Golden Triangle with Thailand and Laos, Myanmar is abloom with poppies. Economic sanctions have helped drive out legitimate businesses.

One unexpected benefit of the stalled economic growth: Dense forests cover much of the country. Could you find a better setting for ecotourism?

Some of my CEO colleagues and I believe sanctions are a policy gone bust. The people of Myanmar love America. Little groups like ours lift their hopes.

Mackay's Moral: Unwise sanctions can undercut a forest of opportunity.

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