Bickering about sanctions gets Burma nowhere


The Hong Kong University this week hosted a talk on recent events in Burma by its dean of social sciences, who was billed as arguing “for new forms of intervention that take policy responses beyond the bankrupt strategies of sanctions imposed by Western states and constructive engagement undertaken by Asian states.”

Unfortunately, the professor gave no such argument. His comments, although well intended, foundered on the ground over which they were supposed to pass: sanctions don’t work; some kind of engagement is necessary. He pinned his hopes on a different sort of corporate involvement, while acknowledging that there exist no legal or institutional arrangements in Burma through which investors can be held accountable or upon which they can place their trust.

There is nothing new in any of that. Long before the United States first imposed a formal ban in 1997, arguments were raging about its practical use, given that Burma has few direct economic ties with the West. The disagreements have continued for the last decade. But genuine debate has long since given way to the tired reiterating of immoveable opinions.

Take the set of papers published by a U.S. think tank, the National Bureau of Asian Research, in 2004. As the writers all share the view that sanctions are ineffective, their work — despite being varied in content and quality — has a sameness in its conclusions that leaves the reader feeling it consists of established truths, rather than guarded assertions: sanctions achieve nothing; they push the regime into the arms of China; foreign policy should win friends rather than make enemies, etc.

The advocates of corporate non-involvement stake their claims with equal certainty. They buttress the moral high ground with reports of human rights abuse, environmental rape and military enrichment in Burma, even where acknowledging that sanctions have little more than symbolic value. Their efforts at obtaining formal embargoes are supplemented by boycotts of companies, which are relatively easy to organize and give people a feeling of involvement, but again with equivocal effects.

None of this is to say that the choice between sanctions or economic engagement is unimportant. On the contrary, it is significant. It deserves meaningful discussion. The problem is that there isn’t any to be heard. Instead, years of squabbling have taken up precious energy that could have been used for better purposes.

So in the wake of the protests across Burma over the last two months surely it’s time to put an end to this unproductive fracas and get on with something else. Here are three alternative topics.

One, the International Committee of the Red Cross must have access to Burma’s prisons, police stations and unconventional places of detention.

Thousands of people and monks were taken away during and after the protests. Unknown numbers are still being held, the majority in undisclosed places. Almost none are being held in accordance with any law. Most are at risk of torture and abuse. A released female detainee described how she was kept at a government institute in the north of Rangoon:

“I saw people being beaten there. There were people with fractured skulls, with hands bound by rope. We went hungry at mealtimes, and also were not allowed to bathe. They didn’t feed us. For over 150 women there was a single room to one side for discarding excreta. Just only this room. After a while it began to stink …”

The ICRC has a mandate, an office and staff in Burma with which it is supposed to monitor such conditions and report in confidence to the government. But since 2005 it has been locked out, after demands were imposed on it that would have breached the terms of its work under the Geneva Conventions. If the prison doors can again be opened to it, so too will at least one door be reopened for direct contact between government officials and the outside world.

Two, humanitarian work must also be secured and redoubled. Agencies already operating in the country must be given guarantees, such as that obtained by the World Food Programme, that they will not be hampered. If what little is already being done cannot be protected, there can be no hope for new initiatives.

At the same time, international groups need more strategies to strengthen and expand their work, particularly on health, schooling and labor issues. They face a lot of obstacles, but have staff and know-how. The studied involvement of informed persons and organizations can produce results, as it has in the past.

Three, the United Nations must come up with a specific proposal for a special monitoring group to operate in the country. Just sending an envoy now and then is in no way sufficient. A clear vision for active work on the ground is vital if outside efforts are to be worth anything; the persistent lack of any such plan is one of the reasons that so many people have wasted time falling back into the to-and-fro about sanctions.

Right now the chances of setting up a mission in Burma may seem remote, but this is in part because of the self-reinforcing belief that it is somehow beyond the reach of the outside world. Burma is not North Korea: even if its generals are isolated, their country certainly is not. In this gap room exists for headway. And with the events of September, there is newfound international and regional resolve to make it so.

No more time or energy should be wasted in either proposing or opposing sanctions. Over a decade of bickering has solved nothing. Any arguments worth hearing have already been made; anyone with something to say has already been heard. Those who persist with it contribute nothing new. Those who are serious about effecting change in Burma would be wise to apply themselves elsewhere.


Protection of detainees: ICRC action behind bars,” by Alain Aeschlimann, International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 87, no. 857, March 2005.

ICRC Myanmar:

UN Mission in Nepal:



One response to “Bickering about sanctions gets Burma nowhere

  1. Thanks

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