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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
Do sanctions against Burma work?

By Larry Jagan
BBC Burma analyst

There is mounting international outrage at the Burmese military rulers' detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sanctions against the junta have already been stepped up by the European Union, and are in the process of being toughened by the United States.

The international community hopes that sanctions will help to convince Burma's ruling generals that they should introduce political and economic reform, and eventually hand over power to a civilian government.

So far, though, the sanctions do not seem to have worked.

If anything, strong international measures are likely to strengthen the hand of the hardliners who are opposed to talking to Aung San Suu Kyi - thereby reducing the likelihood of political change.

Burmese labourer
Burma's economy is already at subsistence level

Burma's military rulers have been at the centre of international condemnation - and sanctions - for nearly 15 years.

Since the generals seized power in 1988, the United Nations has repeatedly tabled motions of censure.

Europe and the US have imposed arms embargoes and suspended most aid programmes to the country.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi's detention, the EU has stiffened its sanctions still further - a travel ban on the Burma's top leaders and their families, freezing the assets of more than 150 senior government military leaders, ministers and officials, and an even tougher arms embargo.

The US Congress is also in the process of adopting increased sanctions - including freezing the assets of Burma's leaders, restricting travel, and a ban on imports from Burma.

We are not worried about US and European sanctions, as trade with India, China and Thailand is already good
Kyaw Win, Burmese ambassador to London

But all the international pressure seems to have produced few results.

There is no doubt that recent US and European threats to increase sanctions have worried Burma's military leaders.

"Instead of giving us time, instead of giving us encouragement and a pat on the back, they are always coming with threats, like sanctions and more sanctions," government spokesman Colonel Hla Min told the BBC recently.

And the threat of sanctions has even helped produce some small concessions.

The start of talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government nearly three years ago is a case in point. So too is her release from house arrest last year.

But these concessions - as shown by Aung San Suu Kyi's recent arrest and renewed detention - are often quickly reversed.

The problem is that the level of US and EU trade with Burma is so small that, in practice, Western-led sanctions are unlikely to have much effect.

For its military needs, Rangoon has simply turned to other countries instead, such as China, South Asia and the former Eastern European bloc.

A threat to freeze the country's assets will not have a widespread effect either, simply because most of the richest and most influential members of Burma's military elite have had their assets frozen already.

It is a ban on trade - which would prohibit the import of Burmese textiles - which is worrying the Burmese Government most.

Burmese economists believe that this would effectively put some 100,000 garment factory employees out of work, with little chance of alternative employment.

Most of these factories are privately owned, and therefore unlikely to directly affect the country's military rulers.

But even on the issue of trade, Burma's leaders have long told diplomats and senior UN officials that they do not fear a Western-led embargo.

"We are not worried about US and European sanctions, as trade with India, China and Thailand is already good," the Burmese ambassador to London, Dr Kyaw Win told the BBC.

So there is no doubt that for any international embargo to work, Burma's neighbours need to be on board, a prospect that at the moment, at least, looks unlikely.

Some South East Asian governments are concerned about what Europe might have in mind if sanctions were increased.

Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly told the international community that it is necessary to maintain international pressure on Rangoon

"Asean - and Thailand in particular - is worried about the possibility of a tourist ban on Burma, either bilaterally or collectively, as this is likely to severely affect their own industries as well," a senior Asian diplomat said.

Already suffering from the aftermath of the Iraq war, Sars and the suspicion of potential terrorist attacks in the region, the South East Asian tourist industry remains in a fragile state. The last thing that these countries want is a tourist ban of any sort.

The fear is that the adverse publicity might dissuade potential tourists from coming on holiday to the entire region.

Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly told the international community that it is necessary to maintain international pressure on Rangoon if the military is to be forced to hand over power to a civilian administration.

What is needed is a combination of carrots and sticks that, while continuing to press the military junta for reform, allows the pragmatists in the military - who understand the crucial need for change and want to engage the international community - room to manoeuvre.


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