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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 43

After Years of Fruitless Sanctions, Time for Effective Cooperation

Tuesday 16 October 2007, by Julien Levesque

On October 5, 2007, the US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, pushed for UN sanctions against Myanmar, while Western representatives were circulating a draft statement for a UN resolution. This brings up the question of the available means to pressurise the Burmese junta towards democracy, as well as that of the efficiency of sanctions.

A Long History of Sanctions

In reaction to the recent bloody repression, the European Union and the United States have pushed towards UN sanctions against the junta, but many specialists believe such measures are “counter-productive”, as India’s Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee said on October 1, after meeting with Burmese Foreign Minister in New York (both being present at the UN General Assembly meeting).

Since the world had condemned bloodshed conducted by the Burmese Army in 1988, most countries express their criticism of the Burmese military government on a regular basis, while the US, the EU and Japan have been imposing numerous sanctions on Myanmar. Diplomatic and economic isolation has undoubtedly contributed in turning the country into the derelict mess it is today, but it has barely managed to shake the regime.

Sanctions began as early as 1988, when Germany suspended all assistance to Burma. Ambassadors from the US, countries of the European Community and Japan were called back on January 2, 1989. The US excluded Burma from receiving US assistance and the Senate banned imports from Myanmar in the spring of 1990. Later, even local authorities (from States to cities) sneaked in foreign policy by passing sanctions bills, like the selective purchasing law adopted in Massachusetts in 1996. Bush Jr.’s years of presidency only hardened sanctions: after an expansion of the visa ban, the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act (2003) was passed, notably freezing assets of Burmese officials in the US.

Japan has never supported either the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) or the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council—the junta’s new name since December 1997). Still, its policy has never been as clear and radical as that of the US. After suspending aid in 1988, Japan’s government resumed aid in 1995 (with the release of $ 10 million for agricultural assistance), intending to use it as a “carrot” for the Generals’ good behaviour. As a result, Japan stands today among Myanmar’s main trading partners.

Although the European countries had already undertaken individual measures, the EU as a whole did not formulate a consistent policy on Myanmar until the death of Danish journalist James Nichols in June 1996 in a Burmese jail. The EU Common Policy (soft sanctions, such as visa ban) adopted in October 1996 came a few months before the ASEAN’s acceptance of Myanmar as a prospective member. The ASEAN’s approval of Myanmar’s membership showed that the regional neighbours of the junta were not willing to renounce their own economic interests for the principle of human rights.

Indifferent or Blind Neighbours

Although Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government openly backed the protesters in 1988, India set her attitude towards Myanmar on the Chinese model from the mid-1990s: non-interference in internal affairs, provision of armament and military training, and signing of lucrative military contracts. Since then, China and India compete for influence over the junta, fighting for their own national interests: China seeks an access to the Indian Ocean to facilitate imports of goods and oil from Europe and the Middle East, thus avoiding the US-controlled and piracy-stricken Malacca Strait. India struggles to counterbalance Chinese presence but also hopes to settle down the North-East insurgency as well as to intensify economic integration with South-East Asia, as part of India’s “Look East Policy”. In addition, both countries hope to receive a share of Myanmar’s large natural gas resources (estimated at more than 90 trillion cubic feet).

China and Myanmar, in 1989, were thrown into each other’s arms by their ostracisation from the international community as a result of their pitiless repression of popular uprisings (the 1988 student protests in Burma, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration in China). As early as October 1989, General Than Shwe (today’s Chairman of the SPDC, then in the second position in the SLORC) visited Beijing with a delegation. The diplomatic entente between China and Myanmar allowed all border disputes to be suddenly quietened down, and in two years, Myanmar became China’s primary partner in the region. Thanks to this new relationship, Beijing has supported Myanmar in international organisations as well: in the past, China kept opposing UN sanctions, and China’s ambassador to the UN Wang Guangya recently declared that pressure “would only lead to confrontation”.

Indeed, short pragmatic concerns blind Myanmar’s neighbours. They are not ready to adopt sanctions, although India surely feels uneasy about her own presence in Myanmar while at the same time claiming to be the largest democracy in the world. Again, on October 6, 2007, Amnesty International with other partner organisations set up a protest in New Delhi against the Government of Myanmar, but also against regional neighbours (namely, India, China and the ASEAN) for their tolerance of an “abhorrent” situation, to use UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s term.

Need for Cooperation

Despite sanctions, in 2006 the US still ranked among the top five countries to which Myanmar exports, while Germany, the UK and France followed closely. Sanctions can only have some leverage if unanimously applied and with consistency. However, the chances are little to avoid one player’s betraying his engagement for his own benefit (in economics, referred to as the free-rider phenomenon), and the past twenty years’ experience of trying to pressure Myanmar shows the ability of the military regime to “divide and rule”: diversify its partners and play off their rivalries.

Myanmar’s neighbours should stop falling into that trap, and realise that only cooperation can put pressure on the junta, and as cooperation in sanctions denies Myanmar’s neighbours’ interests, cooperation in a long term constructive engagement policy that uses economic ties with the junta has to be implemented in a serious manner. The constructive engagement led by the ASEAN since the 1990s has failed. Now why would Myanmar’s regional neighbours choose to cooperate in a new way to try and bring change in Myanmar, and how will such a cooperation work?

By accepting Myanmar’s candidacy, the ASEAN had hoped that Myanmar’s integration into the regional organisation would influence the junta in a liberal way, but these hopes are long gone and Myanmar has become the ASEAN’s black sheep, as exemplified by the controversy around the presidency of the ASEAN in 2006 (the presidency was supposed to be Burmese, but the Generals turned down the responsibility).

On her side, India feels uncomfortable in dealing with the Burmese Generals; her approach towards her eastern neighbour remains timid compared to that of China. Indeed, her main aim is to counterbalance China and to settle her own domestic unrest in India’s North-East region. Consequently, a softer regime in Myanmar could not harm India in any way.

Of Myanmar’s neighbours, China cares least about universal values. Its reluctance for such a project would not raise an eyebrow. Nevertheless, its need for international recognition for the 2008 Olympic Games provides an opportunity that should neither be missed nor underestimated: in September 2007, China reacted faster than India in condemning the bloody repression of the peaceful monks’ protests. Moreover, if a regime change ever happens in Myanmar, China’s interest lies in being part of the process, since Burma could turn into a “moderate dictatorship” (as opposed to the extreme dictatorship it is now), a Chinese-inspired and Chinese-friendly political system which denies people their political rights but allows them economic prosperity.

What should the cooperation consist of? First, the ASEAN, China and India should define a clear position that would simultaneously aim at a regime change while leaving space for trade and economic interests to grow. As 70.3 per cent of Myanmar’s exports and 82.3 per cent of its imports respectively go to and come from India-China-ASEAN combined (Thailand alone accounts for almost 50 per cent of Myanmar’s exports), the junta could not possibly stop contact with these countries without sowing the seeds of a rapidly growing humanitarian and economic crisis, were they to agree upon such a stance. On the other hand, neither India nor China nor the ASEAN can afford to withdraw: India cannot withdraw because China would immediately fill her place, and vice-versa; the ASEAN countries’ reliance on Myanmar’s natural resources (hardwoods, minerals, gems) do not allow them to quit trading with their western neighbour (Thailand, in particular, uses Burmese gas to produce 20 per cent of its electricity). These intense economic ties constitute an economic leverage that can be used by collectively refusing to grant crucial deals in case of non-compliance.

Then, on the basis of this common posture, a three-fold agenda should be defined:

• Governance: The junta’s partners must make it accountable for its use of aid (the needy population must be the beneficiary). There should be an efficient redistribution of wealth (the largest share of the population must benefit from the economic growth made available by Myanmar’s neighbours).

• Transparency: The Generals should be expected to release accurate figures about the country’s economy, its population, etc.. Bribes should be refused in order to reduce corruption.

• Human Rights: Myanmar must be made accountable for its violations of human rights (the most blatant ones first: torture, forced labour, arbitrary executions and detention).

For each dimension of the agenda, different levels of expectation should be thought of, to which should correspond deadlines so that standards can progressively be raised over the next fifteen to twenty years. Myanmar’s trading partners could thus gradually impose stricter rules on the Generals, without scaring them of being toppled, since their fear can only lead them to radicalising their hold on the Burmese population.

The chances of a successful and democratic revolution being scarce, a constructive and progressive cooperation appears the best way to bring about change in Myanmar, a change that the Generals would be bound to comply with because of their dependency vis-à-vis their regional neighbours.

The author, a Research Intern at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, is a student of the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), Paris.

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