The U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday announced a relaxation of financial sanctions against Burma for non-profit and humanitarian-related activities. It’s a significant move, and smarter than the action taken by the U.K., Australia and Norway.
Last week, during a trip to Burma, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared his support for the suspension of sanctions. Norway and Australia soon followed suit and said they were dropping sanctions against Burma, too. An arms embargo is therefore virtually all that will be left of these countries’ sanctions, and the European Union is also likely to support the U.K. position in its annual review of Burma policy next week.
If the European Union decides to suspend crucial measures such as an investment ban and visa and financial restrictions on members of the regime, then European policy on Burma will depart dramatically from U.S. policy. Yet given the reality of the situation in Burma, the U.S. caution on the issue seems a much more sensible response to unfolding events.
Politics in Burma is becoming more unpredictable by the day. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and recently elected representatives from her National League for Democracy face a potential dilemma over whether to be sworn in as representatives who are expected to safeguard the 2008 Constitution. Such uncertainty comes as the situation on the ground over the conflict in Kachin state continues, with government forces continuing to battle rebels.
Much has been made of the supposedly reformist path of the government, but the reported sentencing of three military officials for blogging on the general hardship faced by the army suggests that this is a regime that won’t tolerate dissenting views. According to the Burmese edition of Radio Free Asia, three officers from the Air Force were handed prison terms on April 9 by a military tribunal. One of them, Capt. Zaw Lynn Dwe, was reportedly sentenced to 20 years in jail under the oppressive Electronic Act, among other laws. The other two officers were handed seven year sentences.
It’s also still unclear whether “The Lady,” as Suu Kyi is sometimes known, will be free to travel to the U.K. and Norway in June as planned. She still hasn’t been issued a new passport, and her planned trip is looking increasingly detached from the ongoing hardships faced in her country.
With all this in mind, the European Union and Western nations should refrain from rewarding the so-called reformist government, at least for now, including by reestablishing commercial ties.
It’s true that the arms embargo will be left in place. However, even if Western countries aren’t willing to sell arms directly to Burma, by offering the regime easier avenues for acquiring cash then they are still facilitating the regime’s efforts to arm itself. After all, the Burmese government traditionally spends much of its revenue from foreign investment on defense, rather than health or education. As a nominally civilian government, the proposed budget for 2012-2013 isn’t that different from the previous year, with defense spending of 14.9 percent of the total budget, while health and education receive allocations of 2.9 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively.
The reality is that Burmese politics is still murky and full of uncertainty moving forward. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jails, while those who have been released face restrictions on their activity.
With all this in mind, it would be a mistake to reward a government for what are really sham reforms, with commercial interests being placed ahead of human rights. Those who are considering suspending or withdrawing investment restrictions must realize that they don’t have to directly sell weapons to the regime to help it arm itself.
Zaw Nay Aung is director of Burma Independence Advocates in London.