Burma Sanctions Debate Intensifies- The Irrawaddy


Despite recent calls from international think tanks for an end to sanctions on Burma, Western governments remain reluctant to change their policy, even as they increase aid to the country.


BANGKOK — The Burma sanctions debate has intensified in recent weeks since the National League for Democracy (NLD) concluded that the various measures implemented by Australia, Canada, the European Union and the United States should remain in place until the Burmese government adopts political and economic reforms of its own.

Either side of the Feb. 8 NLD statement, well-known international think-tanks such as Chatham House—which lists Burma-invested oil companies such as Total and Chevron as backers—and International Crisis Group have weighed in, saying that sanctions should be removed as they have failed to loosen the Burmese military’s hold on power and have compounded the poverty experienced by the majority of the country’s people.

The Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has similarly called for an end to Western sanctions on one of its ten member-states, while other leaders such as Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta have also come out against the measures.

However, the call to drop sanctions—without any real reform or confidence-building measure coming first from the Burmese authorities—has been questioned. US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has said it would be premature to remove or relax sanctions at present, after Asean leaders suggested that the measures had outlived their usefulness.

In 2009, after a lengthy policy review, the US said it would reciprocate on reform measures taken by the Burmese rulers, saying it would consider relaxing or removing sanctions if the junta engaged in national reconciliation with opposition and ethnic groups, released NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and held free and fair elections.

However, US officials have since admitted concern about reports that the Burmese military is collaborating with North Korea on conventional and possibly nuclear weapons, which, if proven true, would lead to intensified sanctions on the Burmese government, rather than a relaxation or removal.

Speaking in Bangkok on Wednesday at the launch of a report reviewing the outcome and impact of Nov. 7, 2010 elections—dismissed as a farce by US President Barack Obama—Lahpai Nawdin, the editor of the Kachin News Group, said that the new government in Burma was “old wine in new bottles” and dismissed claims that sanctions were the cause of the country’s economic woes.

“Government policy is the main reason why people are poor, why people migrate to Thailand in their millions, why economic development is absent, and why investment is just for the regime and its cronies,” he said.

In its statement, the NLD said it was seeking talks with the US, the EU, Canada and Australia on “when, how, and under what circumstances sanctions might be modified in the interests of democracy, human rights, and a healthy economic environment.”

The NLD review—dismissed by some of the organizations calling for an end to sanctions—looked at areas such as foreign direct investment, aid policy and trade relations, and concluded that Burmese government policy, rather than sanctions, had contributed most to the lack of economic opportunity experienced by most Burmese.

On Jan. 27, four days before the opening of the new Parliament, the Burmese junta quietly released budget details for 2011 in a state-run gazette, allocating a quarter of the outlay to military spending, with 1.3 percent for health and 4.3 percent for education. It is not clear precisely how sanctions led the Burmese rulers to contrive such imbalanced budgetary spending of their burgeoning oil and gas income, which is set to grow in coming years as the massive offshore Shwe gas field comes on-stream.

According to the Shwe Gas Movement website, “Burma’s military regime would stand to gain US $24 billion over the 20-year contract, or $1.2 billion per year,” from the Shwe field.

Currently, much of Burma’s revenue comes from the Yadana project, which is run by a consortium that includes Total of France, US-based Chevron and Thailand’s PTTEP. According to Earthrights International (ERI), Burma’s rulers have pocketed more than $5 billion of $9 billion that the project has generated since it came on-stream in 2000. Most of this has apparently been squirreled away in Singaporean banks, according to ERI research.

In its calls for discussions on setting benchmarks for the lifting of sanctions, the NLD has cited the release of political prisoners as one precondition for a change in Western policy toward Burma. That possible litmus test has been mooted in the new Parliament, which convened on Jan. 31. The National Democratic Force (NDF)—comprised of former NLD members who disagreed with the party’s decision to boycott the elections—has sought to introduce a motion offering amnesty to Burmese dissidents and exiles and seeking the release of the country’s more than 2,200 political prisoners. However, according to Khin Maung Swe of the NDF, “We submitted a proposal within the framework of the 2008 Constitution and we can’t say whether the new Parliament will reject our proposal or not.”

Khunsai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News, another media outlet linked to one of Burma’s main ethnic minorities, said that if the junta allowed such a measure to pass though Parliament, and if an amnesty and prisoner release took place, then it would in turn warrant some relaxation of sanctions. In any case, the official government position is that there are no political prisoners in Burma, as those arrested and jailed for political activities are usually hit with trumped-up criminal charges.

To buttress the anti-sanctions argument, critics have decried the relatively low levels of humanitarian and development aid spent in Burma, even though this issue is not necessarily related to sanctions. That said, according to figures complied by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Burma receives a fraction of the aid per capita allocated to neighboring countries, with on average of $6 spent on each person in Burma—around one-tenth of the amount spent on citizens of Laos and Cambodia.

This disparity has led some countries to reassess their levels of aid for Burma. Last year, while confirming that existing bilateral sanctions would remain in place, Australia announced plans to implement “carefully targeted interaction in areas of great need like health, education and agriculture,” partnering with NGOs, UN agencies and others in a projected 40 percent increase in bilateral assistance to Burma.

Meanwhile, US Chargé d’Affaires Larry Dinger, the highest-ranking US diplomat in Burma, has begun talks with Aung San Suu Kyi on ramping up aid to the country, where the government has consistently stymied the work of UN agencies and NGOs by delaying visas and hindering access to ethnic minority areas.

UK aid is also set to increase dramatically, with plans to double the amount of humanitarian assistance the country gives to Burma over the next four years to approximately £180 million ($290 million), making the former colonial power the biggest bilateral donor to Burma, even as London advocated that the EU retain sanctions in the run-up to the annual Common Position review.

According to Paul Whittingham, head of the UK Dept for International Development (DFID) office in Burma, “This scaling up is in no way related to the elections that have recently taken place. It in no way signals any kind of changed approach to how we engage with the regime here.

“The UK position on the elections has always been very clear—namely that they were not free, fair or inclusive and they don’t represent progress. … We want to see a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Burma where human rights are fully respected,” he said to the New Delhi-based Mizzima news group.

In April, the European Union member-states will re-visit their Common Position on Burma and review progress made on a set of benchmarks set last year, when the European Council—where EU heads of government or government ministers meet—said that it “underlines its readiness to revise, amend or reinforce the measures it has already adopted in light of developments on the ground.”

In a statement made after the Nov. 7 elections, the EU’s new Foreign Affairs representative Catherine Ashton said that “The EU regrets therefore that the authorities did not take the necessary steps to ensure a free, fair and inclusive electoral process,” hinting that from the European Commission perspective at least, any sanctions relaxation would be premature.

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