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Failed sanctions

March 4, 2010

While the EU announced a humanitarian aid package for Burma this week, it left in place its 14-year old sanctions regime against the country. Experts say misguided sanctions are the wrong approach and counterproductive.

Poster of Aung San Suu Kyi
EU sanctions have failed to win the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu KyiImage: AP

On Tuesday, the European Union pledged to provide 17.3 million euros ($23.4 million) in humanitarian aid this year to Burma. Most of the money is slated for the country's ethnic minorities and refugees living in the country's border areas or in refugee camps in Thailand.

While the EU aid package may provide much needed short-term help for Burma, also know as Myanmar, which ranks 138th out of 182 nations in the United Nation's Human Development Index, it doesn't address the most critical issue in Europe's dealings with the country, say experts.

Since 1996 the EU has slapped various sanctions against the country's military regime. In its latest round of punitive measures last summer, after a court ruling extended the house arrest of opposition leader and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the EU expanded its travel ban and asset freeze against the junta.

Other sanctions include an arms export ban, visa restrictions against members of the regime, limited diplomatic relations, an end of development programs and an export ban on timber, gems and metals.

Stronger government control

The goal of the EU's sanctions is to target and weaken Burma's repressive junta, which has ruled the country since 1962. However, argue experts, after 14 years of sanctions, it is time to recognize that the EU's punitive policy against the regime simply has not worked.

"EU sanctions against Myanmar have been a long line of failures, as most sanctions are," writes Niklas Swanström, a Burma expert and director of the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy, in his latest report on the issue.

"What we see today in Myanmar is not a weakened government and political change, but stronger governmental control of resources and people and increased interaction with, and influence of primarily China, but also India, Thailand, Russia and other actors, with the marginalization of European interaction and influence."

A military honor guard marches at Myanmar's Martyr's memorial
The military rules with an iron fist over BurmaImage: AP

While the EU and the US have slapped sanctions against Burma, most other countries have not, making it easy for the regime to circumvent the sanctions by dealing with other nations.

"Myanmar is ravaged by Chinese businesses that extract natural resources," says Swanström. "We have no possibility to influence that, so in a sense we lose every possibility to have an impact."

Counterproductive measures

What's more, says Michael von Hauff, an economist and Burma expert at the University of Kaiserslautern, the sanctions are not just ineffective, they are actually counterproductive and hurt not the ruling clique, but the Burmese people. "The living conditions of the people have deteriorated and for example many young women in the textile sector lost their jobs," he told Deutsche Welle.

Recent events tend to underscore the experts' perception that the junta's demeanor and stance has not been altered by the sanctions regime. Last month, an American citizen and human rights activist was sentenced to five years in prison for forging an identity card.

Shortly thereafter, four other human rights activists were sentenced to prison terms on the day of the arrival of the UN's human rights envoy. During his five day-trip, UN envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana wasn't allowed to visit Aung San Suu Kyi.

Instead of sanctions, the EU should try to engage in a dialogue with the regime. This dialogue policy shouldn't focus primarily on the junta leaders, but rather on mid-level government officials, says von Hauff.

He has been travelling to Burma regularly since 2001 to hold seminars and made an important observation: "It was really interesting that most of the people from the ministries were very open. We could discuss all the problems and also the human rights situation. So we should have a differentiated picture of the country."

Push from Washington

Children eat food from local donations on the outskirts of Yangon
Childen suffer especially from the dismal economic situation in BurmaImage: AP

But in order to engage the government effectively, the EU must first drop its current failed sanctions policy, argue von Hauff and Swanström. Only than can it regain any possible leverage on the junta, which it lost through the sanctions.

Whether and when that could happen neither of the experts venture to say. The push to change the EU's policy toward Burma could come once again from the US. Washington has recently sent some signals that it is rethinking its sanctions regime.

Should Washington decide to change its policy, the EU would probably do so as well, says von Hauff. "I have the feeling that we have the sanctions because the United States has sanctions and so the EU has to have sanctions as well."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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