Both the US and UK plan on applying tough sanctions against the military junta running Burma (Myanmar), increasing the economic pressure on the regime in support of the protestors filling the streets. However, the West has had sanctions of varying strength against the junta for years, and it has not yet weakened their grip on power. Bronwen Maddox argues in the Times of London that Burma’s two neighbors have to take action before any change can occur:
Burma will be a test of whether the heat of world attention can burn through the shield around a country which its leaders have gone to such lengths to isolate.
The call for more sanctions from Gordon Brown and George Bush means little. Britain and the US long ago imposed what they could on arms and trade. The effect of sanctions on a regime that does not care about its people’s wellbeing, let alone their happiness, is very slim.
Yet the symbolic effect is important. It will add to the worldwide clamour provoked by the crackdown, which must give the generals pause for thought. It is to be hoped, for a start, that it will put them off any thought of harming Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democracy movement. Any attempt to repeat their forceful crushing of the 1988 protest, in which they fired into peaceful crowds, will carry a much greater cost than it did then.
More practically, the outrage may also encourage China and India to put pressure directly on the regime. They are by far in the best place to do so, as neighbours and trading partners. Even if only out of self-interest, they would have good reason to try: they want access to its gas reserves, do not want turmoil, and would greatly prefer Burma’s peaceful economic development.
Without much doubt, pressure from both China and India would undermine the military junta. However, one has to wonder whether China wants to see a burgeoning democracy movement on its southern border. The uprising by the Buddhist monks in Burma has to seem uncomfortably akin to those in and out of Tibet. The last thing they’d want is to provide momentum for Buddhist uprisings.
India may be more fertile ground for action. Their border with Burma is roughly the same length as China’s, but more importantly, India and Burma share the Bay of Bengal. They could exert some pressure on shipping in the waters on which Burma relies. However, since China serves as a rival for Burma’s energy exports, India may not agree to sanctions in which China does not share.
Maddox also fails to close the sale in another, more basic sense. Sanctions alone have never collapsed a tyranny. Usually it just results in misery for the people who already suffer under the oppressive tyrants, a dynamic which the UN tried to avoid in Iraq by establishing the Oil-for-Food program. That turned into a massive corruption scandal that wound up enriching the tyrant that sanctions supposedly targeted. Even without the corruption, the sanctions lost popularity in just a couple of years, with some nations arguing that they killed 5,000 Iraqi children a month. The world has almost as little tenacity for sanctions as they do for military action.
The notion that worldwide condemnation would change the direction of the military junta seems mostly naive. It could have an affect on India, although they have their hands full with Pakistan and may not appreciate the extra load. Maddox places too much faith in the power of shame on governments who care not a jot about the approbation of their own population, let alone that of others.