Western Powers Waver on Sanctions

They wait for Burma's generals to enact more concrete reforms.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
burma-monks-lifestyle-305.jpg A Buddhist monk offers some of his food to the poor at a monastery in Mandalay, Sept. 29, 2009.

Burma's generals may have set the pace for a transition to democracy by holding elections, convening parliament, and naming a civilian government, but the time is still not ripe for dismantling sanctions, most governments and experts say.

They believe the junta has to take more measures, such as freeing political prisoners and offering concessions to minority groups, for any easing of diplomatic, investment, and trade sanctions by the Western powers.

The powerful generals have been signaling to the big powers that the time has come for the dismantling of the long-imposed controls, claiming the junta has lived up to its side of the bargain in implementing what it calls a "discipline-flourishing democracy." 

They pointed to the November 2010 elections, the inauguration of a two-chamber parliament and regional assemblies, the transition to civilian administration from a military dictatorship, and more importantly, the release from house arrest of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Internal discussions are already taking place within the European Union (EU) and the U.S. administration on the possibility of easing sanctions imposed on the country for decades.

Promises delivered?

But has Burma's military strongman, Than Shwe, who has ruled with an iron fist for the last two decades, really delivered on his promises?

The November 2010 elections were flawed, the parliament is dominated by the military, and the civilian government is filled with ex-military officers.

Parliamentary debate is severely restricted, with no foreign media coverage allowed, and the elected chambers apparently have not been given oversight even of the national budget.

Despite her release, Aung San Suu Kyi is still concerned over her security and dare not travel outside of the former capital Rangoon.

Compounding these fears is an apparent threat to her life. A state media commentary warned that she and her National League for Democracy were “going the wrong way” and would meet their "tragic end" if they continued to endorse the sanctions, reports have said.

One expert cautioned, however, that a careful translation of the commentary did not signify a threat to her life, saying it was a just a warning that the relationship between her and the military would come to a "dead end" if she did not relent on the sanctions issue.

Still, people are taking the issue seriously.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), said that "nearly all" of Burmese political analysts with whom he spoke over the past month agreed that by the end of the year, Aung San Suu Kyi will be placed under house arrest again.

"With investment booming and some legitimacy, the regime needs Suu Kyi less and less," he said.

Value of sanctions

A position paper by the Nobel laureate's National League for Democracy (NLD) party said last month that sanctions have not affected economic conditions in Burma “to any notable degree,” blaming the country's economic crisis on the regime’s poor economic policies and mismanagement.

The paper also called for talks with the U.S., the EU, Canada, and Australia in order to reach agreement on “when, how, and under what circumstances sanctions might be modified in the interests of democracy, human rights, and a healthy economic environment."

Western powers have said they have no immediate plans to lift the sanctions, which include a ban on arms exports to Burma and also cover imports of gems, timber, and metals from the country, plus visa restrictions on senior generals.

They said they would reconsider their position if Aung San Suu Kyi called for it, in effect giving her a veto over the process.

Larry Dinger, the top U.S. diplomat in Burma, said that he began to speak with the Burmese government and Aung San Suu Kyi last month about the prospects of offering aid to the country.

For or against

But Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, had said earlier that it is "premature" to ease sanctions, seeking more concrete steps from the Burmese regime.

"Several Southeast Asian nations have come out saying it's time to lift sanctions. We have stated very clearly we think that that is obviously premature," Campbell said.

Washington offers no direct aid to Burma except in emergencies or on humanitarian grounds, but diplomats say it may be reassessing its stance on sanctions, which have failed and have simply pushed resource-rich Burma's generals closer to China.

The EU's “Common Position” on Burma comes up for its annual review in April amid reports of growing divisions on the sanctions issue.

Germany and Italy are believed to be key players for wanting to mend ties with the Burmese government, while the Czech Republic opposes lifting of the EU sanctions.

Willingness to comply

David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University, told RFA that the Burmese regime might have to release political prisoners to convince the Western powers that they are serious about instilling political reforms, a key condition for removal of sanctions.

"These people are not a threat to the Burmese regime. Politically, militarily, they [the regime] have control, and so what good does it do to hold these people?" he asked.

Some 2,100 political prisoners now languish in jails in Burma.

Steinberg, who has kept in close touch with the military regime, said he believes the generals are equally concerned about Aung San Suu Kyi's security.

He said he had once discussed her safety with Burma's military intelligence, which was disbanded in 2004.

"They said 'We know that if anything happens to her, we will be blamed' and I said, 'Yes, that is absolutely true.' So they don't want anything to happen to her, because I said if something happens to her you will have a real revolution," Steinberg said.

Flawed polls

He stressed that although the November elections were flawed, the event was significant because now, for the first time, minority groups will be represented by legislators.

Ethnic parties in the Shan, Mon, Arakan, Karen, and Chin states were given cabinet positions in regional governments. Minority legislators also won seats in the first national and regional parliaments that were simultaneously convened on Jan. 31.

"I think that a lot of the future will depend upon on how the minorities react to the whole issue of border guard forces and whether they will have any sort of freedom within the state [legislatures]," he said.

"The future will also depend on whether the government-sponsored minority groups and the opposition-sponsored minority groups will get together on local minority issues that they view as of overwhelming importance."

The Burmese military plans to bring under its control some of the ethnic group armies, which currently act as border guards as part of a ceasefire agreement.

Marie Lall, a senior lecturer at the University of London, agreed that a key problem for the near future is the situation in the ethnic states and the status of cease-fire agreements.

The larger cease-fire groups have refused to become border guard forces, triggering the prospect of resumption of conflict, she said in a report in The Diplomat, a current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region.

Lall also called for an end to sanctions, which she said "have overwhelmingly affected ordinary people and have made no difference to the ruling generals."

"Burma has taken the very first step towards change, and this is something that needs to be acknowledged and supported by the international community. I see the elections and the change in structure as a necessary step to move from a military dictatorship to something else."

Anonymous says:
Mar 09, 2011 11:42 AM

More sanctions should come!

The Aung San Suu Kyi's country sanctions debate his a no brainner. The country's new military-civilian government will keep military security as its top priority and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been denied a visa to meet, Aung San Suu Kyi. Nothing changed. Thein Sein won a huge majority in last November's general election rigged in favour of the junta. The National League for Democracy is right. The measures implemented should remain in place. In fact, no money at all should be sent to Burma without the direct approbation of Aung San Suu Kyi and a real democratic move.

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