Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Folly of More Burma Sanctions

With the first signs of reform there in decades, the US plan to extend sanctions against the government is misguided and self-defeating, says David Steinberg.

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.

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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.