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Monday, 4 March, 2002, 14:28 GMT
Burma sanctions: The case for
Genral Than Shwe (R) in Thailand
Sanctions apply pressure on Burma's leadership
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By Zaw Oo
Policy advisor to the Burmese exile government
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Many governments have used sanctions on Burma to modify the regime's deplorable behavior in the areas of human rights and democratisation.

These sanctions all share one clear objective: to place the military regime on notice that it cannot continue to ignore the aspirations of the people, and that they must seek a peaceful solution to resolve the political deadlock in Burma.

The solution begins with a genuine national dialogue on democratic transition, which the current talks between the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can presumably lead to after 18 months of confidence-building.

The sanctions reinforce both the legitimacy and possibility of such dialogue in Burma, and they provide effective tools to advance the dialogue process.

Pressure

The goal of these sanctions is NOT severe economic destabilisation aimed at toppling the government. They serve as a pressure mechanism to persuade the regime to recognize the crisis in the country and the need for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

They serve as part of the overall international strategy to facilitate a tripartite dialogue in Burma.

Sanctions make international persuasion more effective by:

  • Serving as a clear signal of disapproval against the foot-dragging attitudes of the SPDC and its continuing failure to improve human right situations in Burma.

  • Supplementing many non-binding international resolutions, condemnations and opinions such as ILO and UNGA resolutions, by generating a material impact on the regime.

  • Acting as moral boosters for those who are struggling for democracy inside Burma. They demonstrate to leaders inside Burma that the democracy movement is not alone in its fight for freedom and human rights.

  • Serving as a strong deterrent in preventing large-scale human rights violations and in protecting some vulnerable groups in Burma.

  • Most importantly, depriving resources to the regime which is currently allocating more budget to defence and the internal security apparatus.

Sanctions have also deprived the regime of an important source of foreign exchange earnings. Since the US imposed a ban on new investments in 1997, no new foreign-funded projects have been approved.

However, the impact of sanctions on the population is minimal because foreign investments in Burma concentrate on natural resource extraction, which has very little trickle-down effects in terms of creating employment and small business opportunities within the overall economy.

Flexible lever

Under the severely restrictive political circumstances, the leaders of the democratic movement can use sanctions as leverage in negotiations.


My argument against sanctions is that they hurt the people more than the government

On the other hand, the SPDC can naturally react to sanctions policy strongly, and they could bargain for the early removal of the sanction regime before it begins the dialogue.

In responding to this SPDC bargaining position, the international community can offer incentives for joint problem-solving initiatives, such as humanitarian co-operation on HIV/Aids campaigns, without prematurely withdrawing effective sanction leverage.

If the SPDC responds positively to these incentives, the international community should consider relaxing disincentive components of its policy.

Such a framework can tie the disparate strands of international policies to interrelated core goals and set priorities so the emphasis on dialogue is sustained.

The role of the international community in bringing change to Burma is important.

The role is a multi-faceted one with full use of available policy tools - humanitarian assistance; joint problem-solving incentives; new commitments; diplomatic boycotts; sanctions; the threat of sanctions; or any combination of the above - and it may require fine adjustment on the weights of those elements.

The ultimate test of effectiveness of this approach lies in how well the international players can co-ordinate to obtain the best policy mix to bring the SPDC to the dialogue table.

Zaw Oo is Hurst Fellow at the School of International Service, American University. He is a policy advisor to the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the Burmese exile government. The opinions expressed here are all his and do not represent the NCGUB.

See also:

04 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Burma releases pregnant women
01 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Five freed in Burma
28 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Burma's unmoving generals
19 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
UN envoy 'satisfied' with Burma trip
15 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
ILO builds pressure over forced labour
05 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma's slow road to reform
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