With more sanctions, Burmese chafe under further isolation

Locals worry that further economic pressure will hurt ordinary citizens.

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.

Around 50 monks here led their own peaceful protests from Sept. 25-27, but they stopped after they heard that security forces had fired on crowds in Rangoon to end the abortive uprising.

Over the last decade, Kawthaung has lured increasing numbers of Thai traders and gamblers, as well as intrepid tourists and foreign expatriates living in Thailand, who brave ocean crossings in leaky wooden boats.

Thai businessmen say the unrest in Burma is already affecting border trade worth more than 100 million Thai baht ($3.17 million) per year. On a recent two-day stay, foreigners were nowhere to be seen in the town's half-dozen ramshackle hotels.

Boat drivers, shop owners, a doctor, and even government officers, who were afraid to discuss politics for fear of being caught in the security dragnet, spoke openly about their economic frustrations since the crackdown. "The cost of living is much higher here than in Rangoon," says a doctor, eating a breakfast of noodle soup in a tea shop with frequent power outages. "People are struggling just to survive every day."

Prices are also higher than in nearby Thailand. But many workers here earn only $1 or $2 a day – about a third of what migrants earn in Thailand working in rubber plantations, fisheries, or factories. In the market, shops sell products from Thailand, China, and India, a sign of how dependent Burma is on its neighbors. Among the few local items are Burmese cigars, traditional longyi dresses for men and women, and the thanaka bark that women and children wear on their faces. Like others, the monks watch Thai cable TV and use Thai mobile phone cards.

Any economic sanctions that curtail border trade would likely hurt local sellers and buyers, as well as the country's nascent tourism industry, which is currently in the doldrums. Without tourists, analysts say many jobs would be lost in hotels, restaurants, and travel agents.

The crackdown is delaying the reconstruction of a market complex here, which burned down two years ago, and the building of a badly-needed road to connect Kawthaung to other parts of Burma.

With no road to Rangoon, students must travel 12 hours by boat to the nearest college in Dawei, and then 12 hours by vehicle to Rangoon.

The biggest concern remains the price of gasoline, which doubled in August. Lacking public transport, local residents either walk or ride Thai-made motorbikes, stopping to buy reddish fuel at makeshift stores often manned by pre-teen children.

Many riders refuse to heed giant government posters urging them, in Burmese and English, to wear helmets for safety. In Burma, it's one of the few ways to express defiance, without the risk of punishment.

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