After the Whirlwind: Post-Nargis Burma, the 2010 Elections and Prospects for Reform

In the wake of Nargis, there has been renewed debate about how the international community should respond and whether punitive sanctions and isolation are working to promote reform. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her recent Asian tour spoke of the need to review US policy towards Burma, saying that the current policies have not worked. The US has not yet made any moves to lift sanctions or travel bans, but she has made it clear that the Obama Administration is reconsidering its options and policies, a shift that mirrors elements of international discourse concerning reform in Burma. Any moves towards softening the US policy will face tough opposition in the Congress where there has been bi-partisan support for hard-line policies, including most recently the sanctions on trade in hardwood, gems and mining projects included in the Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Burma Democracy Promotion Act of 2007.

Michael Green, Bush’s nominee for special envoy to Burma—Congress has yet to act on this nomination since it has not yet been endorsed by the Obama Administration—notes that Senator John Kerry advocates large increases in humanitarian aid to Burma, but he does not expect lifting of sanctions any time soon. Indeed, he strongly supports “coercive diplomacy” and if approved as special envoy he would seek to strengthen international cooperation on sanctions and isolation aimed at pressuring the regime to reform and allow the democratic opposition to participate in fair elections in 2010. Articulating the hard-line position he says,

“We are good at the smart sanctions targeting bank accounts and tracking the flow of money. What we need is better cooperation. Singapore was very helpful with North Korea and I am certain they will help us on Burma. We are hoping that Austria and Australia will tighten up on enforcement. It is important for us to get our “sticks” in a row, close loopholes, tighten targeted sanctions and improve our gathering and analysis of intelligence by the NSA. This is how we will get the junta’s attention…hitting them where it hurts.”

The International Crisis Group (ICG) provides in-depth analysis of conditions in Burma, but is often criticized for being overly solicitous of the junta. The principal author of the ICG reports on Burma, Morten Pedersen, argues that the current strategy of imposing sanctions and isolating the military junta is not working, creating a stalemate that shows no signs of resolution. He asserts that sanctions and isolation actually strengthen the junta’s grip on power, allowing them to pose as defenders of the nation. In his view, the military leaders will not bow to pressure for political reform and are well insulated from economic sanctions, especially with rising LNG revenues. The problem is that the people of Burma are not insulated from the usual problems of endemic poverty—the UN estimates that 30% of the population faces acute poverty—and many are swept up in a gathering humanitarian crisis. However, despite appalling conditions, international aid to Burma is only about 5% per capita of what comparable developing nations typically receive. This is one of the costs of isolation that harms the people. The ICG advocates broader, sustained engagement and a sharp increase in aid to fund “sustainable humanitarian development”. continue

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