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Opinion

Misplaced calls for Myanmar sanctions threaten wrong people

EU trade restrictions in response to Rohingya crisis would hurt ordinary workers

Myanmar's garment industry will be irreparably damaged if the EU ends privileged access for the country's exports.   © AP

The exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar's northwestern Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh has been widely condemned by Western governments and human rights organizations.

But the frenzied search for ways to punish Myanmar ignores local efforts to resolve the humanitarian and development challenges facing Rakhine. Recent calls for the EU to end privileged access for Myanmar's exports are particularly misplaced, threatening company closures and massive job losses.

The government and people of Myanmar are not impervious to the sufferings of the refugees and other displaced people. There have been numerous efforts to address the challenges inherent in the country's complex ethnic and religious makeup.

Even before the current crisis was triggered in late 2017 when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a group claiming to represent the Rohingya, launched attacks on police posts in northwestern Rakhine, there were serious efforts to examine the root causes of poverty and inequality in the state.

For example, the government had already established an Advisory Commission on Rakhine state, chaired by the late Kofi Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, and has been steadily implementing the commission's recommendations.

In the aftermath of the attacks and the security counteroffensive, the government established an agency called the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in October 2017, drawing on the private and public sectors to rebuild conflict-affected areas, and signed a refugee repatriation agreement with Bangladesh in November 2017.

Most significantly, preparations have been made for refugee repatriation, with official commitments to ensuring safe and dignified return and smooth resettlement.

Yet harrowing images of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced persons have become the main focus for Western news stories about Myanmar, while lobbyists and nongovernmental organizations demand boycotts, sanctions and financial divestment by foreign investors. These calls appear divorced from any effort to solve the issues, fixating instead on inflicting maximum pain on any target within reach.

One of the punishments being waved at Myanmar is the possible withdrawal of access to the EU's Generalized System of Preferences -- a mechanism for assisting less developed countries by cutting tariffs on imports such as garments. Most recently, Bangladesh has asked the EU to suspend Myanmar's GSP access until all refugees have been repatriated.

The EU, the world's largest single market, accounts for 60% of Myanmar's garment exports, and the sector will be irreparably damaged if the withdrawal goes ahead.

Tariffs averaging 18% would drive investors, brands and buyers away, leading to widespread factory closures and significant job losses -- industry estimates suggest that at least 300,000 garment workers and many more who depend on them would be affected.

The EU's decision to withdraw GSP access in 1997 and threats of sanctions by other Western countries in the early 2000s badly eroded the garment sector. By 2005 -- two years after the U.S. imposed broad sanctions -- around two-thirds of all garment factories had stopped producing and about 240,000 workers of a total estimated 300,000 lost their jobs.

Critics pushing for sanctions, boycotts and divestment often claim that such punitive measures would mainly affect state-owned enterprises, conglomerates or military-linked cronies. Yet the reality is that in industries such as garment-making and tourism, those most affected are small and medium enterprises and workers. As we have seen, it is ordinary people who bear the brunt.

The punitive measures being demanded would also derail Myanmar's transition toward a more democratic, tolerant and equitable society. Those left unemployed might resort to the rampant drugs trade or human trafficking, and exploitative labor practices will flourish. None of this will help the refugees.

Those left unemployed might resort to the rampant drugs trade.   © Reuters

Nor will the resulting fallout be obvious to outsiders. The people whose livelihoods, families and futures are imperiled by broad sanctions will suffer in silence and disappear. Who will call for measures to address their problems?

Instead of slamming the door shut on Myanmar, the international community should be seeking to improve the welfare and entrench the rights of all the country's people through engagement and partnership.

Organizations such as the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association are working hard to transform the private sector into a responsible agent for equitable growth and development. We know it is in our own interests to promote genuine corporate social responsibility that meets the needs of all communities, and to foster business practices that embrace human rights and corporate ethics as central pillars of our operations.

Rakhine is one of Myanmar's poorest regions. Opportunities for decent work, along with investment in education and training, are essential to develop a dynamic, sustainable and nondiscriminatory economy in which all communities -- Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and others -- can live in peace, harmony and dignity, escaping the cycle of poverty, violence and dependency.

But progress must be based on pragmatic and principled partnerships. Broad sanctions, threats, boycotts and divestment will only worsen Myanmar's problems.

Khine Khine Nwe is secretary-general of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association. These are her personal views.

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