Barely months after the highly controversial general elections in Burma, ASEAN has re-visited the issue of lifting international economic sanctions against the country of over 50 million people.

Ostensibly intended to isolate the military regime and pressure the country to reform its totalitarian government and improve its humanitarian practices, sanctions arguably have not effected their intended results. This leaves us wondering whether lifting these sanctions could feasibly improve the situation for people in Burma, or conversely, merely allow existing power-holders more business opportunities.

Abhisit Than Shwe
Thailand is second largest investor in Myanmar, after China. But since Than Shwe stepped out in favor of a civilian government, very little has been done to improve human rights situation in Burma

While the recent elections, as well as the release of pro-democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been considered by some, particularly representatives from Thailand, to be sufficient grounds to show that Burma is on its way to reform, other groups, especially the US, are not so eager to lift sanctions.

The US first officially imposed sanctions in 1993, followed by the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, and President Barack Obama renewed its position in 2009. The impetus for sanctions came from international pressure regarding the country’s appalling human rights record, which includes forced relocations, imprisonment of political dissenters, rape, torture, as well as the regime’s refusal to transfer power to the democratically-elected National League for Democracy in 1990.

Recently following the 2011 ASEAN call to lift sanctions, Kurt Campbell, the assistant to the Secretary of State visited Southeast Asia. After consulting with ASEAN representatives, he claimed that lifting the sanctions would be ‘obviously premature.’ Arguably, the recent political changes in Burma are only superficial while other more serious issues persist. Especially in the periphery, there is evidence that the Burma Army seeks not only to increase its forces, but also to clamp down on the power of non-state militias in the area.

Following the regime changes in 1989, and the country’s opening up toward outside investment former peripheral militias, re-configured as Nyein Chan Yay Apwe (Ceasefire Groups) have become massively wealthy, coinciding also with business support from neighbouring China.

This was a regional trend, also exemplified by the former Thai Prime Minister Chatchai Choonhavan’s oft-quoted 1989 agenda to turn Indochina ‘from a battlefield into a marketplace.’ Depending on the regime, Thailand has oscillated regarding its policy regarding economic engagement with its Western neighbour, with investment and cooperation stepped up during the years of Thaksin Shinawatra’s prime-ministership. Perhaps not so surprisingly, China, Thailand, and Singapore refused to join in sanctions against Burma. It is these countries, as well, upon which the Naypyidaw principally depends for foreign income.

The lifting of sanctions, obviously, would facilitate more foreign investment and business in the country and open the country to a broader market. While the government and its closely-affiliated private cronies constitute the major employers in the country, lifting of sanctions has the potential to allow for people to advocate for reform without immediately being concerned about their source of income. However, so long as the United States is basing its stance on political reasons, the likelihood that the country will lift its sanctions is slim. ASEAN and China, however, even prior to the 2010 elections, have demonstrated that they are willing to engage with the Naypyidaw regime regardless.

Dr Jane Ferguson is a Lecturer in the School of Culture, History & Language in the College of Asia & the Pacific at the Australian National University.

  1. ASEAN and the Burmese elections: What are the options?
  2. Burmese elections 2010: Moving beyond Aung San Suu Kyi
  3. Sanctions against North Korea

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Burmese sanctions likely to stay, despite ASEAN call

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