The West should start to publicly recognize what decisionmakers in the capitals already privately know — sanctions against Burma have not worked to bring about political change. The time is long overdue to change these failed policies and try different tactics to achieve the same goals.
The long-standing strategy of the United States and the European Union isolates the country now formally known as Myanmar from the West and simply harms the poor and oppressed people it is intended to help.
It persists because of the support of the National League for Democracy (NLD), and its leader Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. While Suu Kyi recognizes that greater integration into the global economy, and improved growth, are vital to Burma’s medium-term prospects, she believes it would be premature to lift sanctions without tangible political reforms.
But despite such a principled position, sanctions are a tool that will never work while Burma is being embraced by its neighbors China, India and South East Asia.
The sanctions have not stopped the regime’s implementation of its seven-step road map to “disciplined democracy” that was boycotted by the NLD. Not even Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 could halt its steady march.
The sham referendum to approve the new constitution was held despite the storm. In November last year, the heavily-rigged election saw a new military-dominated parliament chosen. On March 30, the new government was installed.
The NLD chose not participate in what was admittedly a straight-jacketed process, arguably making it easier for the junta to marginalize them. But other opposition and ethnic groups have worked under immense pressures to try to make the most of the limited space offered to them.
It has not been a democratic transition, but more than the influential exile groups will admit, the authoritarian country is undergoing significant generational change after half a century of autocratic rule. In this evolution are more opportunities for expression and organized activity than have been seen in recent years.
The nascent parliamentary process is revealing information and creating expectations that can be used to hold the government to account. Any advance can quickly be reversed and international support is now needed to add momentum as these changes present opportunities for new engagement that should not be ignored.
After his installation, the President Thein Sein gave a series of public speeches setting out the administration’s policies for the coming term, which is unprecedented in Burma. He made a rather frank assessment of the many areas where improvements were required and made promises that these would be "addressed."
There was also an admission that previous policies that had been shown to be ineffective need to be changed. He acknowledged there were many skeptics domestically and internationally who needed convincing that the political transition would translate into real change. He signalled areas, such as health and education, where international cooperation would be welcomed.
While many in the country had literally switched off from these political developments, preferring to tune their television sets to Korean soap operas, nascent opposition groups inside the new parliament are looking for openings, taking political risks and finding new room to maneuver.
Last year, several local aid groups banded together to send out hundreds of volunteers to monitor the elections. Last month, opposition MPs raised questions about the country’s more than 2,200 political prisoners in public. After a question was asked in the new parliament about the slow registration process for domestic non-governmental organizations, 25 groups suddenly had their applications approved. Non-political periodicals no longer need to submit copies in advance to censors, although they must continue to self-censor. These people need more allies abroad and not extra opprobrium from exiles.
In reviewing their position, the Western policymakers must first recognize that sanctions have had a significant negative impact on the population: they undermine vital economic reforms this country’s dysfunctional economy desperately needs, polarize a situation that requires reconciliation, while creating dangerous imbalances in the country’s external economic and diplomatic relations.
Western policymakers should lift restrictions on high-level visits and encourage principled engagement with the government and dialogue with the Nobel laureate Suu Kyi. Development assistance should be increased and the EU should move to restore trade privileges that have hit the manufacturing sector and cost many jobs.
The United States should lift blunt and poorly targeted restrictions on banking, imports and investment as well as stop preventing international organizations and the Bretton Woods institutions from promoting reform in the country.
Rather than rewarding the generals, making these changes would first allow the West to stop punishing the long suffering people of Burma. The crippling debate over sanctions has retarded the engagement of Washington, London and Brussels.
Instead, they should target assistance to the poor, back a broad range of reformers inside the country, and pick up some old diplomatic tools to start working towards political solutions to Burma’s problems that benefit its long suffering citizens.
Jim Della-Giacoma is the South East Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group