Rewarding Progress: Time for a suspension of sanctions on Burma?

Posted on | april 14, 2012 | No Comments

Today marked another landmark in Burma’s recent history. The visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron is both the first visit by a western leader to Burma in decades and the first ever visit by a British Prime Minister to the country since its independence in 1948. The visit is also significant because Britain has been among the most hawkish of countries in the European Union on sanctions. Indeed in his historic press conference with Aung San Suu Kyi Cameron urged the European union to suspend its current sanctions at the next meeting of its foreign affairs council on, all goods except the arms embargo. With countries such as Germany always less enthusiastic about such sanctions in the first place it now appears likely that the suspension will take place sometime after April 23rd.

Within Britain pro-human rights pressure groups on Burma have been at best lukewarm and at worst deeply skeptical about the current reform program launched by the military after elections in 2010. Such groups vehemently argue that it is too early for Cameron too make such concessions highlighting continuing military action against the country’s ethnic minorities and the fact that hundreds of political prisoners remain in Burma’s jails. Heeding such a call for no compromises with the regime however is extremely risky in itself.

Exact details of what is taking place within the upper echelons of Burma’s military and political elite are hard to determine given the nature of the regime and its decades of isolation from the international community. However, several recent reports, including one in the influential periodical The Economist, pointed to deep divisions between those advocating reform and hardliners. The surprising gambit to allow Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy to contest recent by-elections seems to have been made by convincing a third group, call them the fence-sitters, that such a move would be rewarded by the West lifting some crucial economic sanctions. There is a real danger however that the gambit may backfire. The sheer scale of the victory for the NLD and Suu Kyi while not immediately threatening the hold on power the military enjoys nevertheless suggests that they would be swept from power if the reform program culminated in free elections in 2015. Consequently Suu Kyi’s victory may have significantly undermined the position of President Thein Sein. In this light the West needs to reward the incredible progress that has been made in Burma in the past 18 months by offering enough prizes to shore up the reformers. Indeed Cameron himself alluded to this in his press conference stating,

“I met with President Thien Sein today and there are prospects for change in Burma and I think it is right for the rest of the world to respond to those changes… Of course we must respond with care, we must always be skeptical and questioning because we want to know those changes are irreversible, but as we have discussed, I think it is right to suspend the sanctions that there are against Burma…I do think it is important to send a signal that we want to help see the changes that can bring the growth of freedom of human rights and democracy in your country.”

The goal of both the Cameron and Obama administrations should be to work to bring together reformers and softliners in the government with moderates in the opposition to encourage a gradual negotiated transition to democracy. Such a task will be fraught with challenges, compromises, difficulties and problems but the only realistic alternative to it is yet another brutal crackdown the people of Burma cannot afford.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


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