As the only obvious alternative to what Winston Churchill is said to have called “jaw-jaw” and “war-war,” economic sanctions have a mixed record. They have yet to show any sign of bringing Iran’s leaders to the negotiating table; in Iraq they made the lives of civilians worse while merely driving Saddam Hussein deeper into his bunker.
But in Myanmar, which has been ruled for half a century by its army, more than two decades of sanctions finally seem to be doing the trick. That is a good reason to keep the pressure on until the Burmese people are truly free.
The West gave up on jaw-jaw — diplomatic efforts to persuade the government to lighten its rule — after 1988, when the army killed several thousand unarmed protesters. It froze economic links with Myanmar, formerly Burma, and it has kept those links to a minimum ever since.
Now, with the country beginning to change rapidly, demands for lifting the sanctions are rising. On Feb. 24, Vijay Nambiar, the special adviser on Myanmar to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said “the international community must respond robustly to people’s needs by lifting current restrictions.”
But before doing so, the West would do well to look closely at what sanctions have and have not achieved, and at how they have worked.
Sanctions did not directly bring the Burmese government to its knees. Instead, they forced it to rely heavily on its Southeast Asian neighbors, on India, and most of all on China — and none of those countries echoed the West’s moral outrage about the dictatorship.
As a result, some Westerners argued that sanctions were at best useless. Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to Thailand and now chairman of Network Myanmar, which seeks a softer approach to the government, said in 2006: “Sanctions have only made the situation worse, entrenched the military regime in power and delayed the deliverance of the Burmese people from their misfortunes. I have met no one during my visits to Myanmar who thought the sanctions were helping them achieve freedom.”
But that view is no longer valid. An outrageously fixed election in November 2010 replaced naked military rule with a Parliament and a pseudo-democratic government. Little was expected of it until last August, when the new president, U Thein Sein, formerly a long-serving general, invited the democratic icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to meet him in Naypyidaw, the capital. They were photographed there under a portrait of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, a hero of Burmese independence from Britain in 1948. A dinner with the president and his wife followed. And Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have been permitted to compete in parliamentary elections to be held April 1.
Mr. Thein Sein’s government has also legalized trade unions and set up a human rights commission. Hundreds of political prisoners have been set free. In addition, a dam project backed by the Chinese was suspended and an official cease-fire was announced with the Karen minority, who had been battling the Burmese state since 1949.
Why the sudden appetite for reform? The relationship with China that sanctions had thrust Myanmar into had become too tight for Myanmar’s leaders to feel comfortable. A bitter Burmese proverb goes, “When China spits, Burma swims.” The suspended dam is emblematic: It was built with Chinese money on the Irrawaddy, a river deeply associated with Burmese identity, but up to 90 percent of its power production was reserved for China.
To avoid complete domination by Beijing, Myanmar’s new president decided to reach out to the West. And the only way to the West was through Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi. Her party won a landslide election victory in 1990 that the generals simply ignored, she retains a vast following among ordinary Burmese, and as an Oxford graduate who lived abroad for more than 20 years before plunging into Burmese politics, she has cordial relations with every Western leader who matters. Today, she praises the president as a good listener and a man she trusts, and he returns the compliment. He has even hinted that, if she wins a seat in Parliament, she might be offered a cabinet seat.
These changes are welcome. But to heed the siren voices that call for eliminating sanctions now would be to throw away the only lever the West possesses for more basic reforms.
American sanctions on Myanmar are complex. The most significant measure effectively bars the use of the United States dollar in trading or investment. Others ban visas for political leaders; restrict financial services; ban imports and impose penalties for the use of child soldiers, drug trafficking and human trafficking.
But the heavy lifting of reform remains to be done. The Constitution still guarantees the military a dominant role in politics. If President Thein Sein were suddenly to die, his successor could legally reimpose direct army rule. The cease-fire with the Karen is only a first step toward a peace settlement with Myanmar’s much-abused minorities; recent brutal warfare against the Kachin, another ethnic group, is a reminder that some generals resist such a process.
The economy, meanwhile, remains primitive, dominated by retired generals and their cronies. Civil society is only beginning to raise its head. Political prisoners have not been released unconditionally; their sentences have merely been suspended.
The way ahead is therefore clear: Since the Burmese government’s steps so far have been dramatic but largely symbolic, the West, too, should repeal measures that sound more important than they are: the visa bans and asset freezes, for example. These steps could be announced if the April 1 elections are carried out smoothly and fairly. But the sanctions that bite, specifically the ban on access to American financial facilities, should remain in place until we see whether Myanmar’s rulers have a real appetite for change, or are merely tinkering with the scenery.
If the day of the carrot has arrived, it is not yet time to throw away the stick.
By Peter Popham, a foreign correspondent for The Independent and the author of the forthcoming book The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi.