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Sanctioning sanctions?

There appears to be no end in sight for the Burma sanctions debate: recent appeals by Southeast Asia’s regional bloc and ethnic parties inside Burma to end the blockade have been met with a sharp rebuke from the old guard of Burma’s pro-democracy movement, and observers are feeling a sense of deja vu. Why does the issue remain so divisive, and can the pro-sanctions lobby continue to promote the status quo when any tangible results are so obviously lacking?

Within the polarizing discourse, there is some consensus among both sides that targeted sanctions against key members of the regime should be strengthened – focusing on specific areas, rather than a blanket policy that critics argue is damaging the population. Even the National League for Democracy (NLD), the strongest proponents of a boycott, are conceding that certain areas of the package, such as the trade ban, may need to be reviewed if indeed they are hurting Burmese people.

Most scholars believe that sanctions require three factors in order to succeed: multilateral coordination, incentives (such as a lifting of the visa ban on the generals as a reward for releasing political prisoners), and some degree of domestic opposition to the targets as a means to supplement the pressure.

Their usage has increased dramatically since the Cold War – prior to this, the two prominent cases were Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and South Africa, the casue célèbre of sanctions, which became a key factor in the ending of apartheid.  Since 1989, their use by the US in particular has been widespread – against political leaders, drug lords, and terrorists – but their impact limited. In cases like Sudan, Somalia, and of course Burma, they are deemed a failure.

Most Western governments imposed an arms embargo on Burma and suspended  defense cooperation following the bloody 1988 uprising. Even Japan initially ceased providing aid. But countries such as China, Korea and the Burma’s regional neighbours in ASEAN rushed in to do business with the generals.

Fast-forward several years, and the junta’s refusal to recognize the NLD as the winners of the 1990 elections caused the US to widen its boycott. In July 1995, the Free Burma Act was introduced which included a ban on US companies doing business with the Burmese generals, as well as a prohibition on imports of Burmese goods and travel restrictions on the junta leaders to and from Burma. Some scholars believed that the act was sufficient to persuade the regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in July 1995.

The following year, the Danish consul to Burma, James Leander Nichols, was sentenced to three year in jail for the illegal possession of a printer. Two months into his sentence, he died. Despite insistence from family members and Danish authorities, the regime refused to carry out an independent autopsy. Soon after this, the European Council took its first Common Position on Burma, introducing a visa ban on members of the military regime and their families. It also suspended all high-level governmental visits to Burma.

After the 2003 Depayin massacre when pro-regime thugs ambushed Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters, killing 70, the US imposed the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act banning imports such as teak and gems. The Act also limited financial transactions and extended visa restrictions on government officials.

Major crises in Burma have often preempted the toughening of sanctions: Washington did not pass the 2008 JADE Act that blocks imports of Burma’s precious stones until the September 2007 crackdown on peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks. Such incidents have not however triggered policy decisions in the ASEAN neighbourhood, where continued investment in Burma provides an economic crutch for the regime in the face of a Western embargo.

ASEAN’s argument is that sanctions will further drive Burma towards isolation or into the hands of China at a time when economic engagement with the West will spur progress in one of the world’s least developed countries. Some have their doubts, however, claiming that ASEAN countries are concerned first and foremost with their own highly lucrative investments in the country, particularly in the energy sector. The regime uses the substantial capital gained from sales of natural gas ($US2.6 billion in sales to Thailand in 2007/08 alone) and electricity to fund its ever-expanding army, spending billions on building underground tunnels, buying Russian MiG-29 fighters jet and attempting to produce advanced missiles – all despite the sanctions from the U.S. and EU.

But, of course, there are detractors in every department, and a vocal school of thought asserts that trade will eventually be the main factor in spurring political reform and lessening the rich-poor divide, such as happened in Taiwan and South Korea. They also argue that the generals will be forced to improve the business environment before hoping to attract Western investment, something that could have a knock-on effect on the overall human rights situation for Burmese citizens.

This is perhaps unlikely, however – as long as the current regime stays in power and retains its myopic focus on itself and its military, then reform through trade remains a distant prospect. Sanctions aren’t responsible for endemic poverty in Burma; gross economic mismanagement is, and without any clear sign that the generals have the intention to improve the wellbeing of Burmese, then the lifting of the blockade may be fruitless.

But careful review of areas that are problematic for Burmese, as well as tightening restrictions that affect those in power, will be a welcome step. The banking sector, for example, is largely owned by businessmen close to the regime, and distrust of the financial system in Burma is so acute that citizens rarely use banks – this is one area where stronger sanctions could start to hurt the generals and not your average Burmese, and it’s this kind of fresh tactical thinking which is what the sanctions debate desperately needs.


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