With the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from prolonged house detention, it is time for the United States and its European partners to moderate their sanctions policy against Myanmar (Burma) so as to create incentives for greater political openness and to insulate its citizens from the rigors of the punitive actions.
There is no reason why a weak, impoverished Myanmar should continue to be held to a higher human-rights standard than an increasingly assertive China. Why deny Myanmar the international-trade opportunities that have allowed the world’s biggest executioner, China, to prosper?
The defining events that led to the crushing of pro-democracy forces in Myanmar and China actually occurred around the same time more than two decades ago, yet the West responded to the developments in the two countries in very different ways.
China’s spectacular economic rise owes a lot to the Western decision not to sustain trade sanctions after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protestors. The Cold War’s end facilitated Washington’s pragmatic approach to shun trade sanctions and help integrate China with global institutions through the liberalizing influence of foreign investment and trade.
That the choice made was wise can be seen from the baneful impact of the opposite decision in favor of sustained sanctions against Myanmar, which brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrators 10 months before Tiananmen Square and subsequently refused to honor the outcome of a national election in 1990. Had the Myanmar-type approach of escalating sanctions been applied against China internationally, the result would have been a less prosperous and a potentially destabilizing China today.
By contrast, the continuation of sanctions and their subsequent expansion against Myanmar snuffed out any prospect of that country emulating China’s example of blending economic openness with political authoritarianism. Indeed, the military’s attempts to open up the Myanmar economy in the early 1990s fizzled out quickly in the face of Western penal actions.
Today, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi offers the U.S. and Europe an opportunity to recalibrate the sanctions policy by drawing on the lessons of the past two decades.
The first lesson is that the economic sanctions, even if justified, have produced the wrong political results. Years of sanctions have left Myanmar without an entrepreneurial class or civil society and saddled with an all-powerful military as the sole functioning institution.
A second lesson is that the expansion of sanctions has not only further isolated Myanmar, but also made that country overly dependent on China, to the concern of the nationalistic Myanmar military. At a time when the United States is courting Communist-ruled Vietnam as part of its “hedge” strategy against a resurgent China, it makes little sense to continue with an approach that is pushing a strategically located Myanmar into China’s strategic lap.
Yet another lesson is that the sanctions have hurt not their intended target — the military — but ordinary citizens. By cutting off investment and squeezing vital sectors of the Myanmar economy, from tourism to textiles, the sanctions have lowered the living conditions of the Burmese and shut out liberalizing influences.
The blunt fact is that after being in power for nearly half a century, the military has become too fat to return to the barracks. In fact, it won’t fit in the barracks.
With no hope of a “color revolution” in Myanmar, demilitarization of the polity can at best be a step-by-step process. In that context, the recent elections, although far from being free or fair, have helped revive a long-dormant political process, given birth to new political players and institutions (including a bicameral national Parliament, 14 regional parliaments and the impending appointment of a president and civilian federal government), and implicitly created a feeling of empowerment among the people.
With the military now in the throes of a generational change, the revived political process has created new space for the democracy movement, as symbolized by Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. But with the opposition badly splintered and the military’s grip on power firm as ever, Aung San Suu Kyi cannot bring about tangible democratic reforms without building bridges with the armed forces.
Now is the time, with Myanmar in transition, for the United States and its allies to get out of a self-perpetuating cycle of sanctions and help carve out greater international space in that nation. Each step toward greater political openness in Myanmar ought to be suitably rewarded.
More broadly, democracy promotion should not become a geopolitical tool wielded only against the weak and the marginalized.
Going after the small kids on the global block but courting the most-powerful autocrats is hardly the way to build international norms or ensure positive results.
An uncompromisingly penal approach against Myanmar has had the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s. This was best illustrated during the Bush administration, which, after slapping the harshest sanctions on Myanmar, turned to Beijing as a channel of communication with the Burmese junta.
President Barack Obama began on the right note by exploring the prospect of a gradual reengagement with Myanmar. Yet on his recent visit to India, Obama attacked Myanmar three times, reflecting his frustration with the painfully slow movement to create a democratic opening in that nation.
Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, the seeds of democracy will not take root in a stunted economy. External penal actions without constructive engagement and civil-society development in a critically weak country defeat their very purpose.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut.