Have economic sanctions against Burma passed their sell-by date, or do they remain a key element in prodding the Burmese government down the road of reform?
Opinion is as divided among many leading Burma watchers as it is among the Western politicians who must ultimately decide on the fate of the sanctions, with some arguing for an immediate end and others believing the restrictions must remain in place until more positive and permanent reform happens.
A third line of opinion is that the sanctions could be gradually withdrawn bit by bit if reforms continue.
One of the most high-profile voices urging a rapid end to the sanctions, American economist and Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, has described them as an “impediment” to Burma’s emergence from decades of isolation.
|Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz has described sanctions as an “impediment” to Burma’s emergence from decades of isolation.|
Stiglitz praises what he sees as “unprecedented transparency” in recent financial decision making coupled with an easing of restrictions in key areas.
That’s not the view of more than 60 members of the British Parliament who, while praising the Thein Sein initiatives, argue that no reforms have yet been enshrined in law. They are seeking to commit the British government to block any attempt by the European Union to ease the sanctions after Burma’s April 1 elections.
A parliamentary motion to that end signed by British legislators from across the political spectrum “notes with concern that hundreds of political prisoners remain in Burma's jails, and that there has been an increase in human rights abuses in ethnic states.”
The 62 legislators who have so far signed the motion said: “International pressure has played an important role in encouraging reforms so far, and [we call] on the government to ensure that EU sanctions on Burma are not relaxed prematurely before substantially more political prisoners are released, conflict is ended and there is an inclusive dialogue process to secure further and irreversible reform.”
The editor of the Burma Economics Watch, Sean Turnell, is in favor of the carrot-and-stick approach— reducing sanctions gradually in return for more reform. The primary purpose of the sanctions imposed by the United States, the EU, Australia, New Zealand and Canada was to induce change, argues the economist from Australia’s Macquarie University.
“This I think they have done, primarily by creating incentives for all but the most rusted-on supporters and ideologues of the old military regime to embrace change,” Turnell told The Irrawaddy this week after a visit to Burma to assess the effect of the Thein Sein reforms.
“Consistent with such purposes then, sanctions easing in response to meaningful reforms in Burma have always been the promise. Such reforms are as yet partial, as I suspect then are the likely modifications to the various sanctions regimes. Of importance at the moment is the direction of change and its momentum, in terms of reforms and, as a consequence of these, changes to sanctions.”
The US special envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell, appears to be in the same camp as Turnell, and it’s his views which are most likely to influence White House thinking and calls for US Congress action to roll back the most draconian of sanctions.
Mitchell said the Washington government is looking at which sanctions might be getting in the way of reform, but he has warned that there is no one change in Burma that will magically lead to the lifting of all sanctions.
“The conditions for sanctions and other restrictions are more than these [April] elections,” he said after his latest visit to Burma. “There are specific issues that have to do with the release of all political prisoners, have to do with ethnic minority issues and have to do with other issues.