Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Tuesday, 11 August 2009 12:02 UK

How do you apply pressure on Burma?

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

File image of Burma's top general, Than Shwe
Burma's ruling junta appear impervious to international criticism

Britain is to propose a UN arms embargo on Burma, but is facing an uphill struggle as the world once again divides on how to deal with a dictatorial and repressive regime.

Some governments will press for more pressure on Burma through increased sanctions.

These are mostly the Western liberal democracies. They are highly sensitive to pressure from human rights campaigners - and there are few lobbies more effective than the Burmese one.

Nine Nobel Peace Prize winners, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, have added their voices to the powerful crescendo. They have repeated a call for an arms embargo that they made in last year.

Many Western countries have imposed a range of sanctions already, to little effect. Many of them will now support an arms embargo.

The US already bans all imports from Burma, including the highly-prized Burmese jade, and applies a range of other economic sanctions targeted at the junta's leadership.

The prospect of a formal worldwide arms embargo must be minimal

Washington is also currently concerned about North Korea possibly selling missile technology to Burma, and has taken action to freeze funds held by two North Korean companies.

The EU has a full arms embargo and bans the import of timber and precious stones as well.

Other governments see opportunities for trade.

The Burmese junta embarked a few years ago on a modernisation plan for its armed forces, and has bought the weapons to equip them, mainly from China but also from Russia and Ukraine.

British proposals

The conviction and sentence of Aung San Suu Kyi has prompted the British government to declare its next move.

The British Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis said: "What we must do now, and Britain will lead on this, is ensure that the international community finally acts firmly. The measures that we will propose are that we move quickly to ensure further EU sanctions targeting the regime's economic interests.

Monks squat in front of troops in Rangoon on 26 September 2007
No major action was taken after troops suppressed protests in 2007

"The prime minister will be writing to the secretary general of the United Nations today and the permanent members of the Security Council... urging further international sanctions.

"Specifically we now want to see an arms embargo against the regime. We want to see Burma's neighbours, the Asean countries, China, Japan, Thailand, apply maximum pressure."

This is easier said than done. Sometimes in situations like these, governments make statements of intent to show their determination and to head off pressure on themselves from the lobby groups.

But statements of outrage and intent cannot always be followed up with collective action.

In this case, the attitude of Russia and China might well be one of reluctance.

In January 2007, before the repressed uprising later that year, the US and UK sponsored a Security Council resolution urging Burma to open dialogue with the opposition. Nine countries voted in favour, three abstained and two voted against. The resolution failed because two of the negative votes were from Russia and China, both veto holders.

Burmese troops (file image)
There is no shortage of countries willing to arm Burma's military

It is true that the council issued statements after the 2007 protests calling on the Burmese government to create conditions for a dialogue - but that was not a full resolution and did not commit the member states to anything.

An arms embargo would be a major signal and is much harder to achieve.

So there will be a lot of harsh criticism of Burma and calls for joint action, but the prospect of a formal worldwide arms embargo must be minimal.

The best that can hoped for, perhaps, is that the governments that have sold weapons to Burma will be forced to tread softly and perhaps put further Burmese requests on the back burner.


There is one glimmer of hope for campaigners. The sentence on Aung San Suu Kyi was reduced from three years hard labour in prison to an 18-month extension to her house arrest.

This was probably a tactical move by the regime to avoid an even greater international outcry. It also achieves their goal of preventing her from taking any role in elections next year under the new constitution they have forced through.

It shows perhaps that they are aware of the outside world - but only to an extent.

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