Burma: Feel-Good US Sanctions Wrongheaded

President Bush's recent decision to extend sanctions against Burma for another year is emotionally satisfying but ineffective as a means of promoting democracy in the military-ruled state, argues David I. Steinberg, Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Although US allies like India or Southeast Asian nations share its concern about the junta's continued repression of democracy and imprisonment of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, rather than isolating the state they have chosen to engage with it. The US should do the same, argues Steinberg, in order to assuage Burma's humanitarian crisis and counteract China's growing influence in Burma and the region. Because Burma is a strategic nexus - it flanks both China and India and provides access to major waterways - China has focused much of its recent regional diplomatic drive on Burma. The result has been growing economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries. In order to counter this influence, argues Steinberg, the US should drop its ill-considered and ineffective sanctions and launch informal discussions with the Burmese regime. Doing so will ease the Burmese citizen's growing poverty and “allow the US to resume its interest and influence in that society,” concludes Steinberg.-YaleGlobal

Burma: Feel-Good US Sanctions Wrongheaded

In punishing the brutal junta, the US hurts Burmese people and its own strategic interests
David I. Steinberg
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi arrives in the Burmese capital, March 2004: The US sanction makes the welcome warmer.

WASHINGTON: When the military leaders of Burma (Myanmar) convened a constitutional convention on May 17 without the participation of the country's opposition party, they lost an opportunity for progress. Although the ruling junta called the convention the first step on a "road to democracy" their refusal to release democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi led to her party to boycott the convention. President Bush also lost a chance for influence when he extended political and economic sanctions against Burma for another year in response to "large-scale repression of the democratic opposition." While emotionally satisfying, such sweeping sanctions may hurt the US, its allies, and Burmese civilians. By isolating Burma, the US has neglected humanitarian concerns and driven Burma closer to China than might otherwise have been the case.

To understand why the US policy is counter-productive, consider the wider context. Burma is a strategic nexus. It flanks the two greatest regional powers in Asia - China and India. Although their present relations are benign, these two countries fought one war in 1962 and the Indian Secretary of Defense has indicated that China is India's potential enemy. Burma links India to the rest of ASEAN, and for China it provides access to the Bay of Bengal and potentially to the Malacca Straits, the most important natural waterway in the world. This has obviously been of concern to Delhi, which tests its missiles on the Bay. Key Japanese have also indicated that a Burma closely allied with China is not in Japan's national interest. If it hopes to balance Chinese influence, the US should reconsider its policies.

China has been engaged in a most effective diplomatic and economic initiative in Southeast Asia. It has close trade, investment, and diplomatic relations with the region's collective - the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Individually, it has improved relations with each of the region's nations. Nowhere has this relationship been closer than with Burma. China has supplied about US$ two billion for armaments that have made the Burmese military, the second largest in Southeast Asia after Vietnam, much more technically sophisticated. It has helped the construction of roads, railroads, airfields, ports, and dams throughout the country. In 2003, China provided Burma with US$200 million in economic assistance. Equally important are unrecorded Chinese influences: Chinese investment - probably the largest of any foreign country - is not found in international statistics. Border trade is also vastly underreported, and illegal Chinese immigration has been extensive. Mandalay, the seat of Burmese culture, is reported to be about 20 percent Yunnanese Chinese, Lashio-the most important city of northern Burma-about 50 percent Chinese.

Since the 1988 military coup, India has worried more than any regional power about the China-Burma connection. A Burmese state dominated by China would place India at a distinct disadvantage: China to the north, China's ally Pakistan on the western flank, and a Chinese-influenced Burma to the east. Yet rather than seeking to isolate Burma, in recent years India has offered economic and strategic support in order to counter China's influence. Japan has also been anxious to provide assistance. ASEAN itself, concerned with the extent of Chinese penetration in Burma, admitted Burma in July 1997 to mitigate that influence.

In contrast, United States policy toward Burma since 1988 has been consistent but narrowly focused. Immediately following the 1988 coup, the U.S. cut off military and economic assistance. A few years later it refused to nominate an American ambassador to Burma. The U.S. has demanded that the military leave power and honor the results of the May 1990 election, which was swept by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Aung San Suu Kyi, the secretary of that party, received the Nobel Peace Prize and remains an international icon. She has been under house arrest on three separate occasions since 1989. Her current confinement has lasted almost a year.

In 1997, the U.S. Congress passed legislation banning all new U.S. investment. As a result of a government-sponsored ambush of Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade on May 30, 2003, in which a large number of people were killed, the Congress banned all imports-consisting mainly of textiles--from Burma (over US$ 350 million annually). President Bush issued an executive order freezing all Burmese assets, effectively preventing financial exchanges involving the U.S. banking system, and prohibiting visas to the U.S. of higher level Burmese associated with the regime. Bush's recent announcement extends these policies.

The intent of sanctions has been to isolate Burma and force the military from power. But no other country has approved an isolation policy as strict as that of the U.S. Essentially, the U.S. has called for 'regime change' in Burma, as a means of promoting democracy and human rights. Yet this strong anti-government stance neglects other policy problems. Humanitarian concerns are growing. The U.S. Congress has passed legislation allowing for some humanitarian assistance to be provided in-country, although not directly to the government, but this is minor compared to the needs where about half the population is at or below the poverty line. In addition, the dire political and economic situation in Burma (which has become one of the world's least developed countries in spite of its natural resources) negatively affects the U.S.' ally, Thailand. One million illegal Burmese workers have fled to Thailand, and there are about 120,000 in refugee camps along the border.

What possibility is there for reform on the Burmese side? A truncated National Convention - initiated by Burma's new prime minister General Khin Nyunt - began on May 17th, with the goal of drafting a new national constitution. All political parties and major minority groups with which the regime has cease-fire agreements were invited, in what was probably the most important chance for change in many years. But the NLD's refusal to participate - because of the continued house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and what it regards as military dominance of the planned procedures - has stripped this week's convention of international legitimacy.

In 2006, Burma will host ASEAN. It must assuage that group, for without change Burma would be an embarrassment and could be suspended or even expelled, although the latter seems unlikely. The Thai prime minister and the Malaysian foreign minister have both expressed concern about the situation. Whether there will be a new election and government with a multi-party system by that time is doubtful, although the military has eventually promised one. But even the military realizes that by 2006, there needs to be a new constitution ratified through the polls.

The U.S. sanctions policy has failed. Instead of promoting the 'unconditional surrender' of the Burmese military, it has strengthened Burmese resolve to stand up to U.S. pressure, as any government must do in a highly charged nationalistic environment. It has thrown Burma increasingly closer to China. The U.S. needs to rethink its policy, now essentially made in the Congress and not in the Department of State. The anticipated renewal of the ill-considered sanctions has been announced... But informal, private discussions between the U.S. and Rangoon with a carefully calibrated set of benchmarks might move the regime and allow the U.S. to resume its interest and influence in that society, which badly needs U.S. humanitarian aid.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor and Director of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. His latest volume on Burma is “Burma: The State of Myanmar.”

Copyright 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization