What beckons for Burma in 2012?

Following British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s visit to Burma last week, speculation is centering on the possibility that 2012 could be the year in which European sanctions are eased, or dropped altogether. Here we get responses to recent developments from four analysts on Burma who all acknowledge that change is underway in the country, but for some the events of the past nine months must be even more closely scrutinised.

Sean Turnell, economist with Burma Economic Watch at Macquarie University, Australia

I think when real and irreversible reforms are underway sanctions indeed should be progressively eased, starting with those that have the biggest potential multipliers (i.e., broad import bans, investment, and so on). The last that should be lifted – although these too should be constantly reviewed to make sure the right people are being targeted – are the financial sanctions. We should be focussing upon individuals and entities that were at the heart of the problem through targeted financial sanctions, but de-emphasising some of the broader measures.

I am somewhat hopeful that a program of step-by-step sanctions easing, calibrated against specific reforms, could create a virtuous circle – in which case, sanctions would have proved their efficacy (if perhaps in a different way than people have thought they may have helped induce change).

In reality, I guess determining that these reforms are real is a judgement call. Personally I think something real is underway, but it is still somewhat short I think for sanctions easing, especially from the US. I suspect Europe will be very tempted though. In the meantime, I think everyone, including the US, will be wanting (and, indeed, have done so) to demonstrate a certain goodwill already – a down payment on what reforms can ultimately deliver in terms of international engagement.

Nicholas Farrelly, Research Fellow at Australia National University and editor of the New Mandala blog 

My best guess is that sanctions will be lifted incrementally. Australia has already begun that process and now it is likely to be only a matter of time before other countries follow. Any regressive moves on the part of the Burmese government will, of course, stall or reverse this process. But the appetite for unwinding sanctions is certainly there. The onus is on the Burmese government to get things moving. The ball is, without question, in President Thein Sein’s court.

Efforts to life sanctions are overdue. From now on, the western democracies should be far more nimble with how they are used. If the idea is to reward good behaviour, such as releases of political prisoners, then why not make the impact that much more immediate.
Sanctions are, of course, all about sending signals but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that they are all that important. The economic support that Burma has received from countries such as Singapore, Thailand and China means that the economic impact has always been very questionable, at least at the elite level.  Sanctions were the Burma policy the West could indulge when there was no Burma policy.  From here on out governments around the world will need to get smarter about how they deal with the Burmese system.  The post-sanctions game is only just beginning and when it does things could move very quickly indeed.

Derek Tonkin, former British Ambassador to Thailand and Vietnam and Chairman of Network Myanmar

William Hague’s recent visit had none of the depth and preparation of Hillary Clinton’s. It was light-weight, perfunctory and without substance. Hague had nothing to offer in the way of gestures or confidence-building measures and we are left with the UK’s continuing discouragement of trade, tourism and investment. The UK is still the hard man of Europe. I am only left wondering at the extent to which his visit may have undermined Thein Sein and his reform programme and given comfort (and more) to those opposed to change.

My own view of sanctions is that they have all along been seriously counterproductive. At long last the west is trying to disentangle so-called targeted sanctions from the blocking of development aid so that the IMF, World Bank and ADB can at least provide technical assistance to Burma. There is a chance that EU sanctions could be softened provided there are significant releases of imprisoned political activists before then (Union Day 12 February seems to be the next opportunity) and provided the 1 April by-elections are reasonably free and fair. No doubt quite a debate will take place in Brussels at which the UK is likely to resist any changes unless progress on reform is substantive by then.

The EU is stuck with a complex mish-mash of “restrictive measures” which they have no intention of submitting to any public scrutiny with respect to their relevance or effectiveness. Sooner or later the whole edifice will come tumbling down unless the hard-liners in Naypyidaw – those Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t met and doesn’t know – get the upper hand and Thein Sein is either replaced or pressurised to take a tougher line on the argument that whatever Burma does, the west will always move the goal posts and ask for more.

My best guess is that the ‘enlightened’ in the EU will prevail over the ‘conservatives’ (UK, Netherlands, Czech Republic) and that the Danes, Swedes and Finns will move out of the conservative camp. David Cameron’s decision to veto any change in the EU Treaty will not inspire support for his position on Burma.

Maung Zarni, visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and founder of the Free Burma Coalition

First off, EU has become a laughing stock because it can’t “manage democracies” among its own members or fix the EU’s economy and institutional and ideological crisis, let alone tell the rest of the world run by variously dodgy governments.

So, if EU is opening an office – effectively a trading post – it’s merely pursuing its own collective interests, if these exist as such, and those of the bureaucrats who run the backbone bureaucracy from their cushy offices in Brussels. Eurocrats have been known to be dying to coddle the Burmese generals, coming up with all kinds of empirically rubbish justifications regarding their (internally promoted) engagement with Naypyidaw. The EU’s point man in Bangkok, David Lippman, has personally lobbied Aung San Suu Kyi to endorse the lifting of EU sanctions, with no apparent success.

It is important to understand that the EU sanctions – officially worded as “EU Common Position” (on Burma/Myanmar) – have exempted French oil and gas interests as well as other mineral extractive sectors from within the EU.

There are so many EU-based European commercial interests – banks, consulting firms, construction firms, credit agencies, insurance companies, venture capitalists, development industry, etc. – which have been beating the drum for the commercial re-penetration of Burma, the place they vacated after the fall of Berlin Wall. Germans have been unashamedly pushing ahead with commercial engagement with Burma, arguing commerce is going to bring Burma closer to democracy and an open society.  They should tell that to the Chinese dissidents and democrats in China.

Now the Brits have a different agenda. They have pursued a schizophrenic Burma policy of quietly building their own local proxies through short-term Chevening Fellowship program, among other mechanisms, which is a premiere propaganda venue of the British government through which scores of free market-enamoured local elites are brought to the UK for crash courses on democracy, marketisation of the economy and NGO-isation of the social sector. All the while it has neutered the political elements by marginalising the genuinely democratic voices, the voices that refuse to be silenced on issues of political prisoners, the plight of Burmese farmers, the military-committed atrocities in the regions of ethnic nationalities.

Along with double proxies (for the regime and for foreign commercial interests), the late Dr Nay Win Maung of Myanmar Egress, for example, most of these clever men and women who more or less toe the British line are wheeled out at British Embassy events in Rangoon or various international venues, as well as for encounters with visiting dignitaries to Burma and presented as “civil society leaders”.  I call this “donor-manufactured civil society”.

There is a revolving door between the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and British commercial and financial sector. Vicky Bowman, former British Ambassador, now the second in command of External Relations Department at British-owned Rio Tinto, the world’s third largest mining firm and one of the dirtiest corporations, is just one of many examples.

So, I am sure the British Foreign Office which has kept other EU interests at bay from Burma will find justification for making it possible for British firms to pursue their interests in Burma.

It has been the British opposition within the EU which has kept the sanctions in place. Now that the unashamedly pro-market Tories are in power I wouldn’t be surprised if Hague and his senior colleagues will no longer stand in the way of the Germans, Italians, Swedes, etc. in lifting EU sanctions.

EU has never really been serious about democratisation in Burma, or anywhere in the world, most blatantly in places like Palestine where it has long attempted to undermine the democratically elected group because it isn’t pliant enough for western interests.

If William Hague and other have made the time to go to Burma they are primarily motivated by the desire to see how they can creatively promote British interests in Burma and her neighbourhood. Hague has publicly told the Financial Times the FCO’s business is British business – literally and figuratively.

Whatever the public opinion in Burma, or whatever needs to be done to push for change, is immaterial. If the Brits and other EU interests judge now is the time to rush in for the resource and market scramble then it doesn’t matter what I think – or even what Aung San Suu Kyi thinks.

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