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It wasn’t much to ask: a few sanctions, carefully targeted at Burma’s generals, to try to coax them into negotiations.
Stronger demands for targeted sanctions began in the mid-1990s, after billions of dollars in new trade and investment funded a doubling in the size of the army, rather than schools and hospitals. At the same time a National Convention to draft a new constitution for Burma ground to a halt, as the generals refused to compromise on any issues. With dialogue dead and the generals growing in strength, carefully targeted sanctions were seen as an additional source of leverage to persuade the generals back to the negotiating table.
What was seen as one tool out of many which could and should be used to push and coax the generals into dialogue began to dominate international debate about Burma, even obscuring the horrific human rights record of the dictatorship.
Three main issues came to govern the debate: whether sanctions work, whether sanctions were hurting ordinary people, and what kind of change in Burma would justify the lifting of sanctions.
Injecting rationality and facts into this debate, and defusing the shrill tone, was an obvious priority for Aung San Suu Kyi upon her release.
She immediately announced a review of sanctions, and said that she would listen to the people, and look at the facts. She was open to the lifting of some sanctions if they were found to be hurting ordinary people. For the people of Burma it was a small taste of the accountable leadership they dream of, but which is denied them by the generals. On 8 February the conclusions of that review were published.
In terms of the effectiveness of sanctions, it would be wrong to conclude that because the dictatorship is still in power, in whatever current guise, sanctions have failed. This would be judging sanctions against the wrong criteria, given that it was never thought that sanctions alone would bring down the dictatorship. And in addition, the kind of targeted sanctions which had been called for were never applied.
The review by the National League for Democracy (NLD) makes a much more measured and realistic assessment of sanctions, given the current climate. It argues that “targeted sanctions serve as a warning that acts contrary to basic norms of justice and human rights cannot be committed with impunity even by authoritarian governments”.
It points out that financial sanctions have denied junta members and their associates access to the US financial system, and helped prevent the laundering of black money and the siphoning off of revenues from the sale of gas and other resources.
On the impact of sanctions on ordinary people in Burma, the review looked carefully at different areas, including trade, foreign direct investment, overseas aid and finance. Time and again the evidence led to the conclusion that it is the policies of the dictatorship, not economic sanctions, which are responsible for the hardships faced by ordinary people in Burma.
The third issue relates to what steps would need to be taken by the dictatorship to justify the lifting of sanctions. There has been a crescendo of calls for the lifting of sanctions in recent months, citing the November elections and release of Aung San Suu Kyi as justification. This is despite the fact that the elections were neither free nor fair, that the count was rigged, and that a new constitution legalises dictatorship, albeit with a civilian face. And the release of one political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, while thousands more remain in detention, hardly justifies a change in government policy.
The request of the NLD for discussions with those countries which have imposed sanctions to reach agreement on “…when, how and under what circumstances sanctions might be modified in the interests of democracy, human rights and a healthy economic environment” is designed to settle this debate. Having clear benchmarks that need to be met before the lifting of certain sanctions will provide clarity on an issue which has diverted attention away from other practical steps that could be taken by the international community.
Clear benchmarks mean that governments around the world can agree and move on, while at the same time making it much clearer to the dictatorship what practical steps they must take if they do want to see sanctions lifted. In the past sanctions have been applied generally as a punishment after an atrocity. This approach would put existing sanctions to work more actively in support of dialogue, using the lifting of sanctions as a carrot.
So on the three main areas of debate, the NLD has made its assessment. On whether sanctions can have an impact, the answer is yes, but of course they are no magic bullet – there must be realism about their role. On whether sanctions are hurting ordinary people, the evidence is no. And on what would justify the lifting of sanctions, a request for talks to agree on benchmarks, allowing the issue to be settled and attention given to other issues relating to Burma.
Those hoping for the NLD to call for the lifting of sanctions may be disappointed, but the party has shown its flexibility in accepting certain kinds of investment under certain circumstances, provided it is not harmful to the people and the environment.
Those hoping for a call for stronger sanctions may also be disappointed. Such a call at this time, however, given the current international climate, would not be heeded, but would merely add heat to the debate. But the setting of clear benchmarks would be an important and practical step. The NLD has suggested the release of all political prisoners as one benchmark.
Suu Kyi’s party has followed a moderate path, both in proposals and in its language, hoping that the international community can reach some kind of consensus on sanctions, or at least an acceptance that on this there may be disagreement, but on other areas there can be progress.
This is the final point by the NLD in its paper on sanctions on Burma. It has drawn the least attention, but is perhaps the most important:
“The international community has long expressed a wish to see Burma progress along the road to democracy and economic prosperity. Appropriate policies, wisely coordinated and consistently applied would constitute the best path to the achievement of this objective.”
It is an appeal for a more rational, coordinated and consistent approach. It is time to move on from solely debating sanctions, and focus on how and on what issues the international community can work together to help the people of Burma.
Mark Farmaner is director of Burma Campaign UK