Burma: Coordinate Sanctions to Force Change

Report Asia

Burma: Coordinate Sanctions to Force Change

August 12, 2003 4 min read
Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon
Policy Analyst

On May 30, 2003, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military junta that rules Burma, forcibly detained opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She remains incarcerated to this day.

The junta has persecuted Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), ever since they won a landslide victory against the military government in the 1990 national elections. The military quickly disavowed the results of the 1990 elections. In a brutal pogrom, the junta arrested many NLD leaders and put Suu Kyi under house arrest.

The military released Suu Kyi from house arrest on May 6, 2002, in an apparent effort to convince the world that Burma would make the transition to democracy. Her rearrest is a clear demonstration that the junta will not reform voluntarily.

In response to Suu Kyi's detention, the United States has imposed a range of stiff sanctions, but unilateral American sanctions are not enough. Until Suu Kyi's rearrest, many countries in Asia disregarded American and European Union sanctions on Burma. The State Department must gain support from the other countries that trade with or provide economic and military aid to the regime.

Therefore, the most important action for the United States to take now is to cooperate closely with the EU, Australia, Japan, and other like-minded countries to coordinate sanctions and gain regional and international political support for sanctions. Unless effective multilateral pressure is brought to bear, the SPDC will continue to suppress freedom and democracy.

The Broken Promise of Democracy
On May 6, 2002, the SPDC announced that the government was marking a new day of national unity with a series of steps intended to move Burma toward democracy. These steps included:

  • Releasing Suu Kyi from years of house arrest,
  • Releasing 550 political prisoners and suggesting that more of the estimated 1,300 remaining political prisoners might be released in the future, and
  • Permitting all of Burma's citizens to participate in the political process.

Many greeted the announcement as the dawn of a new era in Burmese politics and trumpeted the success of the engagement strategy practiced by many Asian countries over the punitive sanctions policy used by Washington and the EU. The events of May 30, 2003, however, revealed the fatal flaw of engaging unreformed authoritarian regimes. On that day, a pro-government mob attacked Suu Kyi and her convoy as they traveled through Burma. An Associated Press article reported that the mob brutally killed up to 70 people without provocation. At the same time, the SPDC moved against the NLD, closing NLD offices across the country and arresting many party officials.

The problem with using engagement to influence the generals in Rangoon is that this approach presumes that the junta wants to change when, in fact, there is very little evidence that the generals want to liberalize either politically or economically. The SPDC is merely the current incarnation of 40 years of military rule. The Burmese military seized power in 1962 and has since destroyed the country's economy. Once considered the jewel of Southeast Asia, Burma is now the poorest country per capita in the region.

Effective Action Must Be Multilateral
At present, the international community cannot even agree on Burma's name, much less a policy. In 1989, the junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar. Suu Kyi asked the international community not to recognize the junta's action and to continue to call the country Burma. Washington, Australia, and the EU still refer to the country as Burma; most Asian countries call it Myanmar.

The United States and the EU coordinate sanctions against Burma while many Asian countries--including India, China, Japan, and the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--maintain an active engagement policy. Japan, Burma's top aid donor, recently froze all new aid until Suu Kyi is released; yet it provided $50.1 million in bilateral development aid in 2000 compared to $37.8 million in multilateral development aid from the rest of the world. China supplies most of Burma's military arms, and Russia is helping it to build a nuclear reactor. American bans on trade and tourism are less effective if Japanese and ASEAN tourists flock there without restraint or if Japan resumes giving millions of dollars in economic aid to make up for the shortfall.

What Washington Must Do
At the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in June 2003, nine of ASEAN's 10 foreign ministers (with the exception of Burma's) called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. These actions, uncharacteristic for the usually ineffectual Asean, should be seen as an indicator that Asian countries are becoming frustrated with Burma's generals and may be amenable to an internationally sponsored sanctions regime against the junta. Therefore, the United States should exercise strong and persistent diplomacy by:

  • Continuing to coordinate closely with like-minded countries on sanctions
    It is important to maintain close policy agreement among the countries of the EU, Australia, and the United States in order to convince the junta and its Asian supporters that the world remains united.
  • Gaining support for sanctions from China, Japan, India, and ASEAN
    These countries are key to the junta's economic and political future. Some of them, democracies and American allies, would support the importance of democracy in Burma. Asia's engagement and non-interference strategies have demonstrably failed in Burma. The United States, the EU, and Australia together must exercise strong diplomatic pressure on these countries to persuade them to support coordinated sanctions.

In light of the brazen acts of Burma's generals, Washington and the international community must act. American efforts should focus on persuading Japan, India, and the ASEAN countries to join the U.S. in imposing strong sanctions on the junta. Without the support of the frontline states, such as Thailand and India, political and economic sanctions will fail to influence the generals in Rangoon.

Dana R. Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst for Southeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Dana Dillon
Dana Dillon

Policy Analyst