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Burma expert David Steinberg

LEWISBURG, Pa. -- A leading authority on Burma-Myanmar told a Bucknell University audience April 18 that the imposition of economic sanctions on the military-led Southeastern Asian nation likely will not help the country achieve democracy.

Speaking at the final event in a semester-long series, "Historic Relationship, Contemporary Challenge: The Burma-Bucknell Connection at 150 Years and Why It Matters Today," David Steinberg, distinguished professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said, "My views on sanctions run counter to the prevailing wisdom. I have been against them from the beginning. I said they wouldn’t work."

He cited those who argue that economic sanctions helped to defeat apartheid in South Africa.

South Africa sanctions
"Every country around South Africa was in favor of sanctions. The banking system, the economy, the leadership were all geared to Western Europe. Even sports. South Africa couldn't play soccer or cricket in international leagues," Steinberg said. "None of the above apply to Burma."

Steinberg, who has written extensively about Burma and worked in the country as a member of the Senior Foreign Service, said Burma, under military control since 1988,  faces major crises on four levels: economic, social, political and ethnic.

"These are not separate crises. They are all related," he said. "They are terribly important to understand."

Conditions worsen
The plight of the common people has worsened in terms of disease and an ability to feed itself, while the lack of educational, professional and social mobility has frustrated the country's young population. Traditional avenues of mobility have been closed down, he said. "They're all now controlled by the military. Nobody gets into higher education the military doesn't want."

Even if democracy returned in the promised 2010 elections, Steinberg wondered if the country, which has seen an exodus of professionals, could even run the country. "You can't run government with the people they have," he said.

The ethic situation, while not readily apparent, Steinberg said, could come to a head any time. "There are a whole series of cease-fire groups," he said. "They are very fearful of each other and what you have is a very tense situation."

150-year connection
Steinberg noted the 150-year connection between Burma and Bucknell.

"The connection between Bucknell and Burma is both long and honorable," said Steinberg, noting that in 1858, Maung Shaw Loo became not only the first Burmese student to study in the United States, but the first foreign exchange student from Southeast Asia. Laung Shaw Loo graduated from Bucknell in 1864 and is said to have become a doctor in his native country.

Steinberg said he was pleased to see Bucknell rekindling its connection to Burma.

'A need not to forget'
"There is a need not to forget, to think seriously about the situation and constructively about the conditions and policy towards Burma-Myanmar," he said. "We need an enrichment of cultural understanding and a small university like Bucknell can play that role. That is very important."

Steinberg, himself, has a Bucknell connection. He was present on campus in 1958 to participate in the presentation of the Burma-Bucknell Bowl to the University on behalf the president of Burma and his wife.

Contact: Division of Communications

Posted April 18, 2008

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