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The review of sanctions released by the National League for Democracy (NLD) on 8 February is not so much a technical assessment of the effectiveness of sanctions as a political initiative. Its primary purpose is to bolster the relevance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the political process and to establish a role for the leader of a party which has suffered the defection of some 20 percent of its senior membership due to differences over participation in the November 2010 elections.
The statement is part of the continuing campaign by Suu Kyi to attempt to open a dialogue with the military regime. It is also a reflection of Suu Kyi’s perception of her role in Burma’s political life, which may well conflict with what other might wish her to play. In particular, the four “democratic” countries of the Association of South East Asian States (ASEAN) – Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia – have been active in seeking to persuade Suu Kyi to pursue her political objectives as broadly as she can through civil society, but to do so within the law, which means registering as a political party or social organisation.
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya has already visited Rangoon and has sought to persuade her to follow this line and to soften her attitude on sanctions. He has promised Thai political and material support. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is expected to follow shortly. But Suu Kyi has made it clear that she is standing by her principles. However much it might seem to ASEAN, and indeed other countries, that it would be sensible for Suu Kyi to seek to build up her political base through social networking with a view to a newly registered NLD taking part in the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi may well have other intentions.
At the age of 65, she must already be concerned about her historical legacy. It is very unlikely that she has aspirations to pursue a longer-term political career within the framework of the 2008 constitution, which the NLD has already vigorously rejected in their Shwegondaing Declaration of 29 April 2009. It is uncertain whether the NLD will be allowed to continue without formal registration. The likelihood is that Suu Kyi and the NLD will try to operate as an extra-parliamentary opposition, which the regime may well seek to obstruct.
In this context, the 8 February review seeks to bolster Western support for the NLD’s position. In calling for discussions with Western countries on how sanctions might be modified, there are of course no current restrictions on her contacts with Western representatives. The difficulty for the West could lie in any attempt to formalise these discussions within Burma itself, since that might be held to conflict with the recognition of the regime which the very presence of diplomatic representatives in Burma signifies.
The assessment itself is already proving technically controversial. When the review asserts that the rural population “has not been affected by economic sanctions”, that is a judgement which many would contest, including those who are very supportive of Suu Kyi. It is of course true that the rural population is not directly affected by the West’s formal statutory sanctions. But many would argue that the population, both rural and urban, is seriously affected by a broad range of non-statutory sanctions. At a very rough guess, these non-statutory sanctions deny the Burmese population some $US3 billion annually, far in excess of any loss which the regime and its cronies may suffer from targeted, statutory sanctions.
Burma enjoys only very modest overseas development assistance (ODA). In 2009 the country received only $US4.68 per capita, compared with $US31.99 for Cambodia and $US41.13 for Laos. This alone has deprived the country – the people – of some $US2 billion annually. Humanitarian relief in the wake of cyclones Nargis and Giri has been only one third of what was sought, and the per capita relief provided to the survivors of cyclone Nargis was only one-twentieth of what was made available to the eleven countries affected by the 2004 tsunami. The donor resistance on both ODA and humanitarian relief is mainly a result of political pressures, both reflecting Western hostility to the regime and designed to force them to dip into their substantial foreign exchange reserves in order to provide the funding needed. The failure of the regime to do so has had repercussions borne only by the people.
Active discouragement by Western governments of trade, technology, tourism and investment have had their impact on both the rural and urban populations. Opportunities for employment have been lost. Western companies are concerned about reputational risk in dealing with a country made a pariah as a result of its leaders’ actions. The pretence even in Western circles is that policy decisions, recommendations and official guidelines which effectively result in a denial of support to the Burmese people need not be regarded as “sanctions” at all. Such a view is myopic, unprofessional and unscientific.
The psychological effect on the regime and its supporters of those statutory sanctions which are targeted against them has inevitable repercussions for the population at large. Sanctions have not only entrenched the regime in power; they have made it more truculent, more recalcitrant and even less inclined to respond to Western demands on human rights and political reform. This has inclined the regime to be more inward-looking and hostile to the outside world. Sanctions, designed by the US prior to the Obama presidency to promote regime change, have made the generals and their cronies more concerned for their personal survival. Retreating into the laager of Naypyidaw, they have bolstered their military defences, fearful of external military attack. Resources which might have been spent on social services such as health and education have been denied even more by a regime which in any case has had scant regard for the welfare of its population.
As a result, the rural population in particular has had to contend with a stagnating, debilitated economy. It is of course exceptionally difficult to put a figure on the extent of rural plight resulting from the ripple-down effects of sanctions, but in a situation where as much as 50 percent of the rural population is surviving at or below the poverty line, the loss of a modest 10 cents from a daily income of $US1 has a totally disproportionate effect. This is not to deny the very valid argument in the NLD review that the misguided policies of the regime are largely responsible for rural plight. But sanctions, especially non-statutory and even statutory, have only compounded their misery.
The universal experience is that dictatorships will invariably find ways to ensure that it is not they and their families who suffer. The effects of sanctions are only too easily passed down to the population at large. In any case, what the regime might lose on the swings of sanctions they make up more than ten-fold on the roundabouts of revenue from natural resources, especially sales of natural gas to Thailand.
It was this awareness that inclined US Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell to tell a congressional committee in October 2009 that statutory sanctions might pose only some “modest inconveniences” for the regime, and former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to tell the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French National Assembly in the same month that he and his colleagues in the “Group of Friends” of the UN Secretary General had concluded that such sanctions “serve no useful purpose”. As economist Sean Turnell of Macquarie University told the Voice of America as recently as 8 February: “If we look into Burma’s economy, sanctions are really a marginal issue in terms of the overall economic performance.”
The issue facing the West is how to respond to the NLD initiative. While the NLD was a legal association, there would have been less of a problem than dealing with what would now be regarded as a dissident group. In this respect, Western diplomatic missions nowadays are encouraged to be robust, on the basis that human rights are a universal concern recognised in international law. A greater priority for the West however may be to decide how to deal with the new administration now being formed in Naypyidaw. It is not that the West has any illusions about the nature of this regime, but they would not wish to put all their negotiating eggs, or even a significant number, in the NLD basket where they stand a good chance of being broken. The gut feeling in the Western world remains however that Suu Kyi represents and reflects the very principles of universal freedom and democracy on which Western and other societies are based, and that to fail to offer her support of some kind at this stage is not an option.
Derek Tonkin is chairman of Network Myanmar