Burma sanctions: to keep, or not to keep?
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Burma sanctions: to keep, or not to keep?

Following last week’s resounding by-election win for Burma’s opposition, the expected re-engineering of international policy towards the country is already underway.  The US has announced it will soon appoint an ambassador and relax sanctions (a presidential waiver on ‘national security grounds’ meant the decision did not need Congressional backing), while the EU looks set to follow suit with a further relaxation of it’s already porous sanctions regime.

The predictability of the moves belies their controversy. The standard narrative accompanying the by-elections result, in which the opposition National League for Democracy appears to have won 43 out of the 45 seats up for grabs, is one of jubilation – Hillary Clinton says Washington will “embrace the progress,” while British FM William Hague speaks of “a very important moment of change”.

Judging by the scenes in Rangoon that accompanied the victory, that feeling is shared by many inside Burma. But some are still cautious: “Several Burmese officials have told me that by allowing the NLD to win a few seats—while ensuring that the military’s favored party still controls parliament—the government is betting that it has done just enough to normalize relations with the West, get aid and investment, and still remain essentially in control,” writes journalist Joshua Kurlantzick.

Its ‘normalisation’ programme (variously described as ‘reform’ or ‘transition’) has been hugely successful, as the mooted policy changes show. Whether the thaw in relations really reflects the facts on the ground however is becoming a topic of fiery debate – Human Rights Watch says: “The political opposition may have a monopoly on legitimacy in Burma, but the military still has something close to a monopoly on power – it runs the key ministries, does not answer to parliament or the courts, and can veto constitutional changes.”

Suu Kyi’s entrance to this arena no doubt confers legitimacy on it – she is fully aware of that – but her supporters see her role as one of pulling the MPs unsure of which direction to head in (towards President Thein Sein’s so-called ‘moderate’ faction, or the hawks loyal to the old guard) towards the light. She may well be able to influence this to an extent, but the task of getting enough people on side to drive real change – overhauling the judicial system and constitution, and reworking economic priorities so that more money goes to health and education, and less to the military – will take years, and more than just a majority in agreement, to achieve.

In that sense it does appear too early to drop sanctions (if it is a desire for trade with the west that has largely fuelled the reform, as is likely, then one can consider sanctions something of a success story). Military-owned companies, such as the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, still profit hugely from sales of gas (which will increase as sanctions loosen), while as yet there is no movement towards overhauling land ownership laws that grant the government complete control of (and which thus profits from) farmland, to the huge detriment of the 70 percent of Burma’s population that relies on agriculture as a primary source of income.

While more money should be channeled to some sectors, particularly aid (which, contrary to popular belief, has not been limited as a means to punish of the regime, but rather because the generals exercised complete control over the disbursement of assistance, and unsurprisingly pocketed much of it), the loosening of restrictions on investment before rules are enacted that would enable business to spur human development is ill-advised.

An election victory can rightly be considered a step in the right direction if it is followed by results that go beyond offering a cosmetic lift for Burma. Only time will tell, but the valuable prudence of western countries that for years helped to maintain pressure on the regime appears to be vanishing (a result of both the perceived changes here, and a reinvigorated push by the US and EU to tap markets in Southeast Asia), and long before its time.