Source : Mizzima
by Morten B. Pedersen
Since the 1988 uprising, Burma campaign groups have adopted the standard approach of the transnational human rights movement everywhere, advocating shaming and sanctions to induce the military regime to comply with international norms.
This approach has propelled some significant advances at the global level. But it has mainly made inroads in countries which are substantially integrated into the international political and economic system. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that much of the progress is more apparent than real. While more and more governments are signing international human rights treaties, national implementation is halting far behind. Similarly, any celebration of the dramatic increase in the number of countries holding national elections for government office should be tempered by the failure of many of them to allow a genuine contest for power, never mind to provide broader human rights. Rather than the oft-proclaimed victory of liberal democracy, the post-Cold War era has seen the growth of electoral authoritarianism and illiberal democracy.
Shaming only works with rulers who are significantly concerned about their international reputation. As for sanctions, they rarely work under the best of circumstances and nearly always fail when directed against autocratic regimes for the purposes of bringing about broad reforms such as democracy and human rights. Even when changes do result, the fact that they have been forced upon governments by external pressure rather than originating internally in the countries in question means that they tend to only be skin deep.
In the case of Burma, these structural limitations of the global human rights paradigm should have set warning lights flashing. The country’s military rulers are deeply insular, steeped in a xenophobic nationalism which produces a highly defensive, indeed hostile, response to international interventions in what they perceive as their internal affairs. No Burmese officer could ever allow himself to be seen to give in to such pressure. Advocates of sanctions may believe the generals can be beaten into submission, but international status is of little consequence for this regime and its material dependence on the West is marginal. It is a moot point whether universal sanctions would make any difference, because neither the agenda nor the methods of Western countries have any support among Burma’s neighbors and primary trading partners.
To make matters worse, the domestic opposition is weak and divided. The few political parties and organizations that are active are top-heavy with feeble organization and, generally, weak links between them. Civil society, including the private media, is expanding, but hardly any groups have a democratic or overt human rights agenda. Indeed, very few people are politically active. Although the monkhood, to a degree, stands out from this pessimistic picture, it is – for cultural and institutional reasons – more likely to step in temporarily in times of crisis than to provide sustained political leadership. These weaknesses are the result, in large part, of decades of state repression, but they are by now so deeply rooted in the broader social and economic realities that it is hard to be optimistic about the prospects for opposition-driven reform in the foreseeable future – which is not to deny the immense courage and sacrifices made by those who struggle against the odds.
Regrettably, these conditions are often ignored. Many of the leading advocates of sanctions against Burma came out of the anti-apartheid campaign against South Africa and have sought to replicate it with little apparent thought to the major differences between the two cases. To others, sanctions are simply a moral choice. But neither analogy, nor morality, is adequate grounding for policy, which requires careful analysis of the circumstances of each particular case.
Problems with current sanctions on Burma
Sanctions might – if properly directed and implemented – elicit smaller concessions by the military regime in particular areas of human rights. But the existing sanctions regime breaks every rule in the book, reflecting its origins in moral politics rather than purposeful policymaking.
Numerous studies show that to be successful sanctions must be used strategically as part of a bargaining process, involving incentives as well as disincentives. The goals must be clearly specified and realistic, and the impact must be regularly reviewed to facilitate adjustments. Further, there is today broad expert agreement that any harm to the wider population must be minimized, for practical as well as ethical reasons. Current sanctions on Burma satisfy none of the following criteria.
First, the numerous pieces of overlapping sanctions legislation in the US in particular expound different and often entirely unrealistic conditions for lifting sanctions. At this point, it is hard to envision any changes short of the transfer of power to an Aung San Suu Kyi-led government that would lead to the lifting of American sanctions or, for that matter, European consumer boycotts. This may be an admirable ambition, but it all but guarantees that the military leadership will resist whatever Western countries throw at them. After all, it is not normal human behavior to give up power and privileges, never mind risk prosecution and potentially harsh punishment.
Secondly, Western governments and campaign groups have consistently failed to respond in kind to strategic concessions by the regime. Burmese officials often comment that it makes little difference what they do. So, there is no motivation for them to engage in the kind of interest-based bargaining on which sanctions depend to have an impact. On the contrary, sanctions have fuelled a vicious cycle of hostility and alienation, which raise the costs of compromise on all sides and push change further and further into the future.
Thirdly, no meaningful impact assessments were done before the introduction of any of the current sanctions, nor have any attempts been made to properly review existing measures, which are simply routinely extended every year because it would seem “wrong” – and be too politically costly – to do otherwise. In other words, the sanctions process has come to be driven largely by domestic political imperatives in Western capitals rather than an independent assessment of its impact in Burma.
According to Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, sanctions have only been put in place in recent years and need more time to work. But such an understanding is merely a “red herring”. The most serious sanctions – the excommunication of the military rulers from international society and denial of most forms of international assistance – have been in place since 1988. Moreover, sanctions don’t usually take “time to work”. On the contrary, they tend to lose their potency over time as the shock value diminishes and the target finds alternative sources for fulfilling its needs. This is exactly what has happened in Burma, which since 1988 has built a state capitalistic economy oriented almost entirely towards its neighbors.
Although there is some scope for further tightening financial sanctions against regime members and supporters, it is folly to believe that this would convince them to give up the privileges of power, which has made them rich in the first place. Without regional cooperation, sanctions will remain largely symbolic measures, which may feel gratifying to those imposing them, but won’t do much good for the Burmese people.
There are, of course, benefits from expressing moral values, independently of the effect it has in the target state. But any such external benefits must be weighed against the damage sanctions do to people suffering under an abusive regime and to the longer-term development prospects of the country. In the case of Burma, such damage includes the loss of hundreds of thousands of existing or potential jobs, the denial of any meaningful aid or protection for millions of deeply impoverished families, and a further erosion of the country’s civilian institutions and overall capacity for governance.
Need for fundamental policy changes
Rogers appears to concede that the single-minded pursuit of maximum sanctions by many campaign groups in the 1990s was misled. Indeed, he has expropriated much of the traditional language of sanctions critics, who for years have been calling for better targeting of sanctions, greater diplomatic engagement and increased aid. But in the end his recommendations amount to little more than cosmetic reforms of a policy regime that is in urgent need of a fundamental overhaul.
I agree that sanctions can be useful, to some extent, to keep change on the agenda both inside and outside Burma. But no amount of international sanctions is going to induce Burma’s rulers to relinquish power. There is too much at stake for them, personally as well as institutionally, and they are under little sustained pressure domestically to do so. Sanctions, therefore, need to be used far more selectively and strategically than is the case today – not as a primary tool, but in support of serious diplomatic and other engagement.
While further sanctions, strictly targeted and flexibly applied, may be appropriate, broad economic boycotts or embargoes are not. American bans on investments and imports should be lifted unconditionally, as should European consumer boycotts on labor-intensive industries and the general suspension of development aid – not because the generals deserve it (they don’t), but simply because these measures hurt ordinary people and undermine the country’s future under any government. It will make little difference politically, the generals are secure enough in power as it is. In fact, it may help generate a more positive atmosphere in which dialogue and compromise become more feasible.
I agree, too, that high-level diplomatic engagement is essential. But it will make no significant difference unless international leaders also adopt a more realistic agenda. Burma’s rulers will reject any and all demands that threaten their vital interests, in whatever shape or form they are made. They might, however, be persuaded to allow further liberalization, undertake limited economic reforms or reduce the impunity with which the army and other state agencies exploit local communities, especially if they got something in return. Such limited strategic objectives should be the immediate focus of international pressure and dialogue, not sweeping demands for regime change, which – however welcome it would be – is entirely unrealistic and best kept only as a long-term aim.
Moreover, high-level diplomacy won’t do on its own. To make a difference, engagement must be a broader and deeper exercise, targeting all levels of the state and society. There needs to be many more international actors on the ground who can work with regime moderates and technical government personnel to push gradual reform, and who have the access to help nurture local civil society networks, as well as the flexibility and local knowledge to exploit openings in the ever-shifting political environment.
Although the limitations are obvious, international and non-governmental organizations, such as the International Labor Office (ILO), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), to mention but a few, have helped transform generalized pressure into specific policy and institutional changes. Others play similarly important roles in providing training and education and in nurturing social capital within the broader society. Such work has immediate benefits for victims of repression and bad governance, and helps build for the future.
Finally, I certainly agree that foreign aid should be increased. But new aid needs to go beyond support for exile democracy groups and narrow humanitarian assistance.
While Western aid for democracy forces is an important expression of solidarity, it should not be mistaken for effective action for change. Burma is not Eastern Europe. There is no democratic institutional legacy, which can be revived and revitalized to provide an effective counterweight to authoritarianism in the near future. It will have to be built from the bottom up, through long-term educational, social and economic reforms and support.
Similarly, although current humanitarian aid certainly saves lives, it does little if anything to address the causes of poverty. No humanitarian policy will be worthy of its name unless it engages with the government, as well as civil society, to change policies that limit people’s ability to make a living and build capacity for improved national and local governance.
The transparent subjugation of aid to Burma to the democracy agenda has heightened the suspicions of the military rulers to aid programs, thus triggering further restrictions on access and operational autonomy. Demands that aid agencies avoid any cooperation with the government not only compound this problem, but are also counter-productive as they limit the transfer of new ideas and best practices and impede the building of local constituencies for change.
In order to promote governance reforms, the international community needs to work simultaneously to encourage reformers within the regime itself and to empower Burmese society at large. Without willing army leaders no reforms will be possible, and without broad-based popular pressure reforms are unlikely to go beyond limited liberalization. Current policies fail in each of these respects. Indeed, they entirely lack a strategic perspective adequate to the massive task at hand, not to mention proper empirical grounding.
Sanctions have a place in the broader web of Burma policies. But like any other tool they must be used strategically to try to nudge open Burma’s closed regime and society and promote gradual change, not simply to punish.
Burma’s problems have been greatly compounded by the long-standing isolation of the country, its rulers and its people from the world. Despotism flourishes in backward and isolated societies. More, not less, international linkages are needed to further the socialization of the regime into international norms and strengthen capacity across the state, civil society and the private sector to overcome the deep structural obstacles to progress.
None of this is to say that greater engagement and more development aid will bring about democracy in Burma. That will be a long and difficult process, driven primarily by domestic developments. What the international community can do is to help the Burmese people cope with the current situation and seek to nudge incremental changes, which over time can create the conditions for broader reform. This requires more sustained, across-the-board engagement, far greater attention and resources and, perhaps most importantly, a willingness to defer overly idealistic goals, such as liberal democracy, which provide a poor guide for effective action in one of the world’s most closed and impoverished societies.
I agree with Rogers that current policy debates often leave much to be desired. But he might want to look for the problems a bit closer to home. The mere listing of human rights violations does not present a case for any particular policy; it merely emphasizes that something needs to be done. Moral extortion of policymakers and companies may be an effective campaign strategy, but does nothing to further understanding and enlightened policies. As for pushing economic sanctions, including consumer boycotts, without any serious analysis of how they affect the target or innocent bystanders, such an approach is simply irresponsible.
We need more debate, not less. But mainly we need better debate, which challenges policymakers to think harder about ends and means and which forces everyone to take greater account of the realities on the ground in Burma and the impact international actions have on people there. Sanctions may feel morally just, but in this case they are neither effective nor even ethical.
The author is a research fellow at Centre for International Governance & Justice, Australian National University, specializing in international statecraft and human rights. He previously worked as senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Burma. He is the author of “Promoting Human Rights in Burma: A Critique of Western Sanctions Policy” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).