Burma sanctions: limited, Western, symbolic

Those New Mandala readers who follow debates about economic sanctions against the Burmese government will be intrigued by this current flare-up in Australia. 

The president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sharan Burrow, is lobbying for Jetstar to stop its flights to the country.  All of the usual arguments for beefing up sanctions against Burma are trotted out.  According to Burrow, “We [Australia] now should be part of increased sanctions, increased pressure to make sure that everything is done to bring this military rule to an end”.

It is precisely because (limited, Western, symbolic) sanctions do not bring this (or probably any) military dictatorship to “an end” that after two decades of such rhetoric the Burmese government is arguably as strong as it has ever been. 

What is needed is less of these tired rhetorical flourishes.  Perhaps Australia’s Union heavyweights could, instead, fund a study, starting from first principles, into the efficacy of sanctions against the Burmese government.  The existing research around this question suggests that sanctions against Burma are “folly”,  “caused hardship for ordinary Burmese people without significantly impacting the State Peace and Development military regime”, and have “proven to be a failure on all fronts”.  None of these analyses are particularly new but they should, together, raise some serious questions for those hoping to justify an ongoing sanctions policy.

Or, if we’re too busy to read some of these deeper reflections on the topic, we could just run with the assumption that (limited, Western, symbolic) sanctions do not work except in (limited, Western, symbolic) ways.

If the goal is to unseat Than Shwe and the boys then, based on the modest available evidence, I am happy to hypothesise that the quickest way to change the terms of military rule in Burma is to make it politically viable for all the Jetstars (and McDonalds, KFCs, etc, etc) to make their Burma push.  Tough-minded Western investors, competing with their Japanese, Singaporean, Thai and Chinese counterparts, will probably change Burma far more quickly than any sanctions we could ever consider.

My guess is that some of those changes would be “good”, others would probably be “bad” and a fair few would be simply indifferent.  But would such an approach lead to political change in directions that are appealing to Australia’s Union bosses?  I would bet on it.  For many of us, this is, I’d suggest, an unpalatable realisation. 

I am open to anybody who can put the counter-case, with evidence that shows how (limited, Western, symbolic) sanctions will “bring this military rule to an end”.

About Nicholas Farrelly