Sanctioned to engage?

Joseph Allchin

Sept 28, 2009 (DVB), Burma has been subject to sanctions for over a decade, aimed at pushing the ruling junta along a path of democratic reform, and the United States has been the fiercest proponent of this policy.

Following the announcement last week that the Obama administration is to step up engagement with the regime, whilst maintaining sanctions, we asked four experts on Burma what the impact would be for the Burmese people, and what this means for future US policy to the pariah Southeast Asian state.

Sean Turnell, economist and head of the Burma Economic Watch, at the Macquarie Institute, Sydney, Australia

"I think it's really important for the US to maintain the high moral ground. It worries me a lot that if the US were to start back-tracking [away from sanctions] it would be giving the green light to other countries, particularly China, Singapore, Thailand and some of those other countries – it would make them more comfortable in dealing quite directly with the regime. So I am always quite concerned that the US should maintain a tight position.

"Having said that, I think there is room for genuine change. We can actually start to look at sanctions in a positive way, I mean as a bargaining chip, so cash in the bank that the West, and the US in particular, can exchange for genuine reform in Burma. And because of the sanctions, and there is such a myriad of them, you can actually begin to trade off against real reform. So I think the US needs to maintain a strong position but the potential exists for trade-offs down the track.

"I think the [US] rhetoric will remain strong, particularly with what happened with Suu Kyi. Had that not happened, the West would already have ratcheted down a bit. I personally think the sanctions will remain in place and in fact most of them have to remain in place because they are congressional sanctions, not sanctions determined by the administration.

"In fact although the ones determined by the administration should definitely stay in place, the financial sanctions are very important not least because they are so well targeted. But I think there will be concessions given as a prize, [such as] aid, on things that are not connected to the regime. So, programmes for HIV/AIDS or something like that, coupled with increasing the ambassadorial position, and then coupled with a very strong statement condemning the regime for ongoing oppression and so on, so everyone gets a party."

Aung Naing Oo, exiled Burmese political analyst

"I have been a long-time advocate of engagement. Whatever [the West and US] do, a lot of these countries have a foreign policy foundation when it comes to a country like Burma, based on freedom and democracy and human rights, and it would be wrong for a country like America to give up these principles. But at the same time the idea of sanctions and isolation has not worked.

"So I have advocated keeping your sanctions, but talking with the Burmese military. In the long run we need to bring the military out of isolation; we need to engage with them because you cannot undo what the military has done to the country for the past 50 years overnight. It will be a slow process of democratisation so we need to be clear that we need help from the West, but especially to establish and consolidate democracy.

"So I would say that I support the US new initiative fully and they should definitely talk to the Burmese military, and we know that the Burmese military wants to talk to the Americans as well. I know actually that the Burmese military and the Americans have been talking for a long time now – at least by talking to the military they can reduce tension, they can build trust. But I think for a country like Burma, I don't think we have anything to lose by talking to the Americans because we want democracy and we're talking to a democracy."

Robert H Taylor, academic and author of two acclaimed political histories on Burma

"I don't think much is going to happen. The West has been engaging with Myanmar [Burma] for a number of years, basically in a negative way. And now they say let's talk, and then they expect quid pro quo. It depends on how big a quid pro quo they want. I mean some things are bigger obstacles to the Myanmar government than others, and as long as western governments cannot remain neutral in domestic politics in Myanmar it will be difficult to move much further.

"They should stop, for example, funding exiled political movements and adopt a neutral position in domestic politics like they would any other country. Then they might get somewhere. But they're not going to do that because they have created their own constituencies, which expect that from them. As Winston Churchill said, "jaw-jaw is better than war-war". Talk is always a good thing and they might find they have things they agree about that they don't even know about.

"[The Obama administration] rhetoric is toned down but Myanmar will view this as something that isn't new – this has been going on in foreign relations for 50 to 60 years. When the Eisenhower administration gave way to the Kennedy administration, the Kennedy administration was more prone to accept neutralism, which was Myanmar's foreign policy stance at that time, so they were happier about it, but it didn't really change anything.

"It goes back to domestic politics in America and senator Moynihan in the early nineties, and he had staff members who were connected to the KNU [Karen National Union]. They started taking an interest, and president Clinton didn't want to give political capital away over Myanmar, which meant nothing to him. America had very few economic interests there.

"It goes back to domestic politics, and then when human rights became a buzzword in Western foreign policy in the 1990's after the end of the Cold War, they had to practice human rights selectively because in some places we have interests and you want to ignore nasty regimes and other places you don't have interests so you can bash them over the head for human rights as much as you want.

"And Myanmar, like Cuba and a few other places, became very useful for that. Meanwhile Vietnam is not exactly a multi-party democracy but we trade and everything else because we feel guilty in the West. Nobody feels guilty about Myanmar, so they can bash it."

U Win Tin, senior National League for Democracy (NLD) member and journalist

"Concerning engagement, of course we don't mind this concept or this change in policy, whether America is engaged with the junta or not. We ourselves have been asking for a long time, for more than 20 years now, for political dialogue and direct engagement with the junta.

"But the other thing is about the sanctions. Sanctions are only concerned with the country, the US, the EU, and so on – it is not our job to ask for sanctions. The thing is that the sanctions are a great help to us because we believe that in dealing with dictatorial governments, like the junta here, you need to use a carrot and stick, or something like that.

"At the same time if you are going to make a direct engagement with the junta you also need sanctions, so for this American policy we totally agree. The only thing is that it must not be one-sided, engaging only with the junta. You must go two ways – it must concern the NLD and other democratic forces inside Burma. Engagement must also be concerned with the [ethnic] nationalities.

"Last time the engagement was one-sided, only with the junta. When Mr Ban Ki-moon came to Burma, he made a very big mistake because he followed according to the schedule laid out by the junta, so when he met with the democratic opposition in Burma he was allotted only about 20 minutes for about ten parties.

"So when America come into the country and engage with the government they should not follow all the time according to schedule made by the junta. They should try to make a dialogue between the junta and the opposition groups. So that is another step of course."

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