BANGKOK, Oct 13, 2011 (IPS) – On the face of it, the sudden release of political prisoners in Burma would appear a triumph for the sanctions regime imposed on the Southeast Asian nation by Western governments.
The United States and European Union, which led the punitive economic measures, regarded the release of political prisoners in Burma, also known as Myanmar, as a benchmark of change after decades of repression under successive military juntas.
“We have made it clear (we want) to see progress on prisoner releases,” Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told an audience in Bangkok on Monday. “It is too early and too soon to make a final judgment on the change (inside Burma) and too soon to dismiss them.”
On Oct. 12, two days after Campbell delivered those remarks in a public address on U.S. foreign policy in Asia, over 200 of the nearly 2,000 prisoners of conscience were freed.
Among the first to walk out of jail was Ko Thura, better known as Zarganar, a comedian and frequent critic of the government, who was condemned to 35 years in jail. Su Su Nway, an equally famous labour rights activist and government critic, was also granted amnesty, ending a 12-year sentence.
This followed an announcement by President Thein Sein, stating that 6,359 prisoners will be freed and a rare, open letter to the state-controlled press by Win Mya, head of the newly appointed National Human Rights Commission, calling for “prisoners of conscience” to be released.
Other gestures of openness have been unveiled since Thein Sein, a former general, began his term in late March, ending nearly 50 years of military rule. The notorious Press Censorship and Registration Division has permitted dissident voices to air their views in the local media.
Such nods towards political reform have brought to relief the role that sanctions have played. Is Burma under Thein Sein changing because the sanctions imposed by the U.S. government and the governments in Europe, Australia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have worked?
“The historic reforms underway are happening in spite of the sanctions, not because of them,” Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and author of a new book, ‘Where China Meets India – Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia’, told IPS.
“They are happening not because of outside pressure but because everyone, including the elites, has become increasingly aware that Myanmar needs to join the 21st century,” he added.
Washington was the first to impose sanctions after the military regime launched a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy street protests in 1988, killing over 3,000 activists. These targeted new investments and financial assistance, imports of Burmese products and the finances and assets of military officials and junta cronies.
The EU’s ‘Common Position on Myanmar’, the sanctions policy unveiled in 1996 and tightened in later years, imposed restrictions on sale of weapons to Burma, targeted the assets of 1,207 Burmese firms, and placed visa bans on military officials and their backers.
But, the sanctions had unintended consequences and impacted the Burmese people harder than the serial human rights abusers in the junta.
The collapse of the country’s nascent garment sector a decade ago is one often cited consequence. In 2000, there were 310 garment factories producing clothes for export, employing close to 120,000 people. Today, there are an estimated 130 factories, with 50,000 workers in employment.
“The garment factories were targeted by the U.S. sanctions,” said Zaw Oo, a Burmese economist based in Thailand. “The people who lost their jobs did not have any resources nor did they have many options to find alternative incomes.”
“These are the people the U.S. government should have helped, not punished,” he told IPS. “All the big fish in the country have been untouched by the sanctions. They have found ways to survive and the regime became more dependent on natural gas exports to boost the economy in the last 10 years.”
Sanctions also crippled the flow of official development assistance (ODA), with U.S. policies preventing the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund from offering financial assistance. The United Nations Development Programme found its hands tied from pursuing its development mandate.
Consequently, humanitarian aid to Burma slowed to a trickle, about four dollars per capita, compared with 68 dollars in neighbouring Laos and 46 dollars in Cambodia. Calculated another way, the poor in Burma have lost two billion dollars annually in ODA, according to reports.
“Now is the time to talk about the efficacy of sanctions with far more detail and nuance,” says David Scott Mathieson, Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, the global rights lobby.
“The U.S., EU Australia, and Canada should be having discussions about which sanctions should be removed because of the reforms and which should stay to ensure the end of human rights violations.
“It is folly to remove all the sanctions because of the changes,” he argues. “We are still talking about an incredibly brutal, recalcitrant and isolated regime.”