Burma and Economic Sanctions

By Sarah Joseph

Saturday November 13 was a great day for human rights, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi after seven years of house arrest in Burma. Her bravery in refusing to accept conditions on her arrest, and willingness to become immediately politically engaged upon release, is truly inspiring. She knows that her activism could land her back inside. After all, she has been released before – 15 of her last 21 years have been in detention.

The bravery of the massive cheering crowds who greeted her, effectively thumbing their noses at the regime, must not be underestimated. While the world is closely watching the regime’s next moves regarding the charismatic Suu Kyi, the same is not true of her her no-name supporters. They know that their mistreatment, or worse, in retaliation for their open defiance could go unnoticed.

The release of Suu Kyi is a chink of light in an otherwise depressing human rights landscape for Burma. The country remains under de facto military rule despite the farcical recent elections, which have been followed by a state of emergency and an upsurge in ethnic violence. Over 2000 known political prisoners remain detained.

Suu Kyi is talking of trying to reconcile with the regime in order to hasten Burmese democracy. Reconciliation is not impossible, but the uncompromising nature of the regime, along with deep vested interests amongst the disproportionately massive Burmese army, make the task daunting. In this period, the international community must play its hand carefully: the paranoid siege mentality of the regime means that its reactions can be irrational and unpredictable (epitomised, for example, by the bizarre relocation of the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2006).

Earlier this month, the Greens called for a full trade embargo by Australia against Burma. But yesterday Suu Kyi herself indicated that she might seek the lifting of existing global sanctions after advocating them for many years. An economic embargo is a very blunt instrument of human rights enforcement. Trade embargoes can severely harm innocent people, as was demonstrated in the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq (to curb its WMD program) in the 1990s. The UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights has in fact warned of the abuses caused by economic sanctions rather than praised any positive impact thereof.

I doubt the efficacy of trade sanctions as a means of forcing change upon despotic regimes. This is problematic, as these are the regimes we most often want to change their ways. Yet, under such regimes, trade embargoes, unless very carefully tailored, seem to be a mechanism which harms the poor and the powerless, while leaving the target regimes intact (eg. Saddam Hussein was well entrenched despite the devastating 1990s sanctions). The harmed people have no power to respond to the harm by putting even a small dent in the regime. Instead they simply become poorer and more powerless. Whereas members of the targeted regime may have the resources, often via corrupt avenues, to avoid economic pain.

Economic sanctions seem to work better against States with a reasonably functional middle class (unlike Burma) with some political power (unlike Saddam’s Iraq). Apartheid South Africa was such an example, as was Milosevic’s Serbia. Once the squeeze became too much for those respective middle classes to tolerate, something was done about it. It is possible that Iran may reach such an impasse: it has a functioning middle class which might have enough power, if supported by some influential Mullahs, to overthrow Ahmedinejad, or at least force a change in nuclear policy so as to see sanctions lifted. But those conditions don’t exist in Burma.

Of course, certain sanctions should apply. Australian investors must exercise due diligence to ensure against any complicity in human rights abuses in Burma and be punished if they fail to do so. Trade in armaments is out of the question. Targeted sanctions against specific people in the regime could continue, though these can probably be circumvented by devious paper trails. But care must always be taken in imposing general trade sanctions. The problem with punishing a country’s regime is that such punishment often ends up hurting the people we are trying to save.

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