The Folly of More Burma Sanctions
Image Credit: Jean-Marie Hullot

The Folly of More Burma Sanctions


If US sanctions against the military government in Burma, the goal of which were regime change, haven’t worked for a decade and a half, by what logic would one suppose that additional sanctions would have a more positive effect?  Yet well-meaning human rights and other organizations have recently proposed that further sanctions be instituted, and that a UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations be convened.

This proposal is especially quixotic as the EU has just modestly modified its less stringent sanctions policy in light of potential progress in that country, and none of the Asian states adheres to any sanctions regimen. Rather than being a step forward, then, this proposal undercuts both US policy and the potential for positive change in Burma.

That the Congress and the White House will extend current sanctions policies is a given, as Burma isn’t an issue on which any administration is willing to use up political ammunition.  But the country has a new government inaugurated this spring – as a result of last November’s admittedly clearly flawed elections, which in turn were based on a manipulated referendum on a new constitution in May 2008.

The cast of characters in this new act of the Burmese tragic drama is largely composed of the former military, but now in mufti. Still, there are now a few opposition voices in the various parliaments, and the first public criticism of state policies has taken place before the new president, in an act unprecedented in a half century.

In his inaugural speech the end of March 2011, President Thein Sein set forth a remarkably liberal and positive agenda. It called for progress on the alleviation of poverty, economic reform, more attention to health and education – both in miserable condition – better treatment of minorities, less censorship, and the elimination of corruption. The speech could have come from any government spokesperson in a democratic society.

These goals, while articulated by the head of state, aren’t universally accepted among the military power elite in that society, and there are strong elements opposed to reform. They could scuttle positive change and redirect priorities, which have been advocated by many foreign observers and governments. But the call for more sanctions and the UN Commission of Inquiry simply lends more credence to those elements within Burma who are opposed to reform, who will claim that no action will please the United States, and therefore the US continues to be a threat, which in turn requires tighter controls on the population and greater military expenditures. Such views undercut the potential for helping the people of that poor society – those that the advocates of more sanctions wish to assist.

The United States has nominated a special ambassadorial envoy to Burma, and his approval is likely in the Senate. His position calls for coordination of sanctions policies and dialogue with the Burmese. Do the organizations advocating more sanctions really believe that this will positively affect his efficacy in dealing with Burmese officials?

The Barack Obama policy review resulting in ‘pragmatic engagement’ went as far as it could given internal US politics.  It called for high-level dialogue, which continues. But US sanctions can’t be eliminated except in response to some overarching reforms inside Burma and the expressed concurrence of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The United States has called for continued support to her and institutionally to the National League for Democracy, a party officially deregistered because of her objections to participation in the elections. All this means that no US administration will use up valuable internal political credits to change existing sanctions, and even the new Burmese administration may not be strong enough to take the positive steps the United States wants.

The reality is that change inside Burma is possible, but likely to be slow. Yet though these internal Burmese reforms may prove ephemeral, they are the first positive governmental steps since 1962 and the military coup of that year. We should therefore welcome them as a start, and watch carefully their progress.

It’s simply self-defeating to advocate policies that effectively undercut the possibility of these reforms continuing, something which would be in the interests of both the United States and the people of that sorry land.

David I. Steinberg is a Distinguished  Professor of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. His latest volume is 'Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know.' This is an edited version of a piece published by Pacific Forum CSIS here.

13 %
September 22, 2011 at 18:34

How many people support her in Burma less than 13 %

She has the world thinking she is the one. Her destiny for the country was
always sanctions

Ask your self who is this lady?
September 22, 2011 at 18:32

ASSK is not the leader of Burma, she lost.
The Clinton Initiative big screen live event to speak with her
was all smoke and mirrors. It would be like ASEAN having a live conference
with Eric Cantor, a leader in the republican party, while Obama was at the UN.

What purpose is it to continue to deceive yourself and the world she is
” THE ” leader of the country. Sham election or not you must adhere to the results. If we followed the Burmese model of we do not accept this election,
the international community would be insane .Get over it She lost !

If Steinberg who is so anti Burma wrote this the time for sanctions to end
are well over due

August 23, 2011 at 19:27

EU policy is pro-engagement, pro-development support and pro-smart sanctions. Unfortunately, some of the sanctions are not so smart (blocking ADB and IMF assistance). The EU also supports accountability for human rights abuses, but knows that UN institutions are difficult to enlist. The EU likewise sees no way of interdicting gas revenues because they are held by banks all over the region and you can’t declare financial war on China and SE Asia just now.

Khin Than Htwe
August 20, 2011 at 22:41


You are abusing ASSK with your prawn brain. Not only you, but the world must know that Aung San Su Kyi is Burmeses’s heart and leader of Myanmar general public. You think, you know Myanmar for you stayed five years there. You think people there are fool. Without Aung San Su Kyi, general will never step forward for the country and its’ people even to the current level. Aung San Su Kyi was/is never hopeless even when generals locked her up. Nobody can lock her destiny for her country. Peoples are always at her back, always supporting her. You can never understand love and trust is so important not just for a family and country but for the whole universe. Myanmar generals breached the trust of its’ people. 1990 general election will always be in Myanmar history.

Paul Rivers
August 13, 2011 at 07:53

Sanctions on any country opens the door to traders who wish to expand their influence . So , really , handing over access to developing countries gives China cheaper mineral resources beyond it’s borders , allowing more rapid expansion.
The US state department knows this , so what is their real strategy here .

Really false words and hopes
August 8, 2011 at 13:49

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is Burma’s hope and Burma’s future for national unity, reconciliation and restoring peace, development. US’s policy will be tested how much political space that the new government grants to her in the next 3-6 months.

Okay simpleton. ASSK was the hope, now she is hopeless. She watch from a
nice house on the lake under house arrest as her people had sanctions she called
and calls for now. She is history.. The world moved on without her.

Woman in Burma and Asia will have all the access without her or her party
Just keep making China rich with your stupid thoughts and keep those
opinions for when you run out of toilet paper

false hopes
August 8, 2011 at 13:46

Forget going that far back unless your writing a history book

The ethnics are just as hard headed as the former junta
Get over it start the talks and get real. They are not waiting for you
and to the leaders of the minorities why put your children through
another generation of refugee camps especially inside Thailand?

Wake up its 2011 !

False hopes
August 8, 2011 at 13:44

Excellent by far you know what is real and the false hope
of a stupid woman controlled by the British and Soros

False hopes
August 8, 2011 at 13:43

One more one sided stupid opinion
Sanctions never hurt those in power

Why not go and live there !

Simon Harvey
August 4, 2011 at 05:13

The author of this piece is breathtakingly ill-informed. The ‘elections’ of last autumn were held under conditions that prevented any real opposition from being elected, while there is an overwhelming body of evidence that human rights abuses have continued unabated since then. The ‘remarkably liberal and positive agenda’ does not exist; indeed, the phrase is a distasteful insult to those who continue to suffer at the hands of one of the most brutal totalitarian régimes in the world.

Civilians from ethnic minorities are used by the Burmese military as human mine-sweepers. Ethnic minority villages are frequently shelled. Rape is used as a weapon. Child soldiers are commonplace.

The author’s reference to the EU is mysterious, as there is no intention in that body to scale back support for sanctions — chiefly because the EU is in possession of good quality intelligence from within Burma. Further, there is substantial support among EU member states for the setting up of a UN committee of enquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma.

The sanctions against Burma do not prevent that country’s government from spending its wealth on its own citizens. But it does not. Nearly a quarter of the country’s total government spending is devoted to the military. Expenditure on education and health is minuscule. This is not because of sanctions. It is because the government is interested not in the wellbeing of its citizens but in controlling them, absolutely and by force.

Mr. Translator
August 4, 2011 at 03:00

Thanks for the info. As far as relations with the US is concerned, it is worth remembering that Vietnam has gone through the process of transforming itself from the 1980s ultimate pariah state to today’s strategic partner. This was done without a change of government in Hanoi. Both countries are much better off as a result, though there’s still plenty of US complaining about “human rights.”
You may well be right about how things are inside Burma (I mean no disrespect; I still say Peking. Changing English toponyms is usually unwise. I concede that in Burmese, the name of the country is pronounced something like “Mi-an-ma”), though I’m not sure ASSK deserves such vitriol. She’s allowed to make political missteps, just like anyone else. She’s no Imelda Marcos, so give her a few years to regroup.
The US would do best to just get on with normalization of relations with Naypyidaw. Leave the human rights work to NGOs. Burma is strategically significant and we certainly don’t need more havens for the kind of anti-Americanism that hurts US interests in the region (trade).

August 3, 2011 at 18:20

The change inside burma is possible. but whoever try to change will end up like General Khin Nyunt, the former prime minister. They can only chnage on paper. That’s the reality.

August 3, 2011 at 15:43

Myanmar (not Burma) does not need the US or EU, and if the fools in Washington insist on further hamstringing their influence in the country then they are simply giving the Chinese a free pass in establishing trade relations and investment.

ASSK is a fool and has squandered a golden opportunity in refusing to take part in the recent elections. While far from perfect, they did at least offer a liberalisation of the political system, and in exchange for cooperation with the Junta and assistance in legitimaising the process and calling for a relaxation of annoying sanctions, the Generals would have willing to allow her some wiggle room. As it is, she stupidly maintains her pointless excoriation of the Junta and acts against the nations well being by exhorting foreigners to destabilise the economy, measures that hurt the working classes and poor far more than the ruling elite.

Indeed, when faced with hostile actions from abroad, the natural instinct of ALL governments is to resist and assert sovereignty, and those citizens seen as giving aid to the enemy will always be treated harshly (try opening a Hezbollah-funded lebanese cultural center in downtown NYC if you doubt it).

I lived in Myanmar for 5 years and I found it a wonderful country with warm friendly people and abundant resources. If the western world can only keep it nose out of thier business and allow its people to come to an agreement without outside interference then they can get on with the job of national developemnt for the betterment of all.

Zin Linn
August 3, 2011 at 14:13

Banya Hongsar made a plain and concrete comment. I do agree with Banya Hongsar’s view.

Here, I want to add one more thing. One year after Burma gained independence from the British in 1948, the 1947 Panglong Treaty was ignored and political argument between the majority Burmans and ethnic minorities brought about a civil war.

The military backed Thein Sein government, which came into power through the 2008 constitution, should take the lead in negotiating a country-wide ceasefire and resolve political problems based on the spirit of the 1947 Panglong Agreement.

The historic Panglong Treaty has outlined a multi-ethnic Union of Burma by the four major ethnic groups, the Burman, Shan, Kachin and Chin.

To end this civil war with ethnic armed-groups Thein Sein government must launch a special parliamentary session immediately. As a parliament-based government, the president has the obligation to lead a discussion in the emergency parliament session in order to get true voice of the members of parliament, how they want to do with the ongoing civil war.

Without hearing MPs and people’s voice, the government is going on with its aggressive civil war.

So, it is an appropriate time to accept the July-28-open-letter offered by Aung San Suu Kyi,which strongly called for a ceasefire between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups, including the KIO, Karen National Union (KNU), New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Shan State Army (SSA).

By doing so, Burma can start an effective step towards peaceful reconciliation chapter.

Banya Hongsar
August 3, 2011 at 09:02

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is Burma’s hope and Burma’s future for national unity, reconciliation and restoring peace, development. US’s policy will be tested how much political space that the new government grants to her in the next 3-6 months.

The Thein Sein government also will be tested by US policy maker whether the government allows Daw Suu to legally register her party prior to the new election. Overall, the current constitution must be re-write as inclussiveness. Fianlly, the government must release its National Audit Report to the assembly each year. Treasury and Finance Department must take accountbale for corruption of the public servants and other stakeholders.

Almost all business enterpriese are controled by military afficliated elites from banking sector to manufacturing.

Rural farmers have little access to state finance for years.

Schools are under funded by the government.

Local hospital are poorly funded and operated for years.

Higher education providers have little resource to improve the quality.

Women have less access to higer education and other position within the government.

Daw Suu must question to the government on state owned business how and who spend the money for whom.

Overall, Daw Suu needs stronger support from US and EU governments for political settlement within Burma.

It is time the new government given Daw Suu a chance for all sake.

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