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How Useful Are Sanctions in Pressing Burma to Change? - 2002-12-28

In the last two years, Burma's military government has engaged in U.N.-sponsored dialogue with the democratic opposition, easing tensions and some restrictions on political dissent. While there has been no real progress on political reform, the fact that there is dialogue has prompted the international community to re-examine the policy of sanctions as a means to foster democratic transition. Some activists say isolating Burma is making it more difficult to address humanitarian issues - and international drug trafficking.

In the remote green hills of northern Burma, along the border with China, Laos and Thailand, farmers were busy preparing for the opium harvest in late January. The rains have ended, and the poppies are opening their purple and white blossoms.

Last year, Burma produced more than 800 tons of opium, but experts say that was 25 percent less than the crop the year before.

Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung said his government is working to eliminate illegal drugs in 11 years. "We have a very firm determination and political will to totally eradicate the poppy plantations and narcotics program, eradicate this from our soil," he said.

The government is working with local authorities of Burma's autonomous Wa State to eliminate poppy in three years, by reducing a chronic food shortage that is the main reason peasants grow opium.

Authorities are introducing high-yield crops, building irrigation canals, and teaching vegetable gardening. They are also building schools, health clinics and roads. But the efforts are being almost entirely financed by the Burmese government, one of the poorest in the region.

The international community, led by Europe and the United States, has imposed economic sanctions to pressure the military to end 40 years of dictatorship, and improve human rights. As a result, the amount of anti-drug aid for Burma is less than 10 percent of that provided to neighboring countries.

The head of Burma's drug control agency, Colonel Hkam Aung, says the lack of foreign aid is slowing drug eradication efforts. "[For] a lot of the donor countries that wish to work with us," he said, "there are political factors that they always attach when they propose this sort of thing. That is very unfortunate."

Given that Burma has made some progress in reducing illegal drug production, foreign embassies and aid agencies are now debating whether to increase collaboration with the Burmese government, despite the lack of concrete political reform. Engagement would focus on crucial issues, such as drug trafficking, that are of international concern. The director of the United Nations drug control agency in Burma, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, said the policy of isolation is counter-productive, at least in the war on drugs. "The lack of assistance is impeding the political transition, is creating political regional insecurity, instability," he said, "and the price is being paid now by the international community because of the heroin exports."

Burma scholar Morton Pedersen of Australia's National University said the lack of progress on political reform has led many to wonder whether engagement would be a more effective way to press for democratic reforms. "The main concern of most players, certainly in the West, and including the opposition inside the country, has been to get regime change," said Mr. Pedersen. "They have been focusing on this essentially political issue at the expense of a range of policy issues that they could have chosen to focus on, including improvement in human rights, improvements in economic policy, economic development, that kind of thing."

Sanctions and the policy of isolation have long been backed by Burma's suppressed opposition party, the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD won elections in 1990, but has never been allowed to take power.

Two years ago, the United Nations initiated closed-door talks between the NLD and the military. The result has been that hundreds of political prisoners have been released, and the NLD has been allowed to reopen some offices and hold meetings.

This has prompted new debate on sanctions versus engagement. But the opposition says until true political transition begins, the economic pressure is crucial, although it accepts an increased need for humanitarian aid.

The United States, a major force behind the sanctions, does not seem inclined at this point to increase the level of cooperation, although it does help fund a small U.N. opium eradication program in northern Burma. "The question some have raised of removing Burma from what's called the 'Majors List' is not under discussion, and it's not being recommended or looked at," said State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher, "Also, we're not considering any bilateral narcotics assistance for Burma."

But Burma's neighbors, particular China, Malaysia and Thailand, back engagement. They say working with Burma, particularly in the commercial sector, can show its leaders the benefits of opening up society and politics.

There is a sense of urgency in some quarters. The heads of eight U.N. agencies in Burma have written a letter warning of a looming humanitarian disaster, because of poverty, drugs and the spread of AIDS.

Burma scholar Morton Pedersen, noting that annual inflation is expected to surpass 100 percent next year, said the humanitarian situation is deteriorating. "We have to accept that not everything in this country is political, and there are certain things that you can do, aside from the political process, and certainly aid is a key issue," he said. "Burma does need aid, and there are important things you can do here with aid."

Experts warn, however, that Burma does not have the capacity to distribute massive amounts of foreign aid, and the government is highly sensitive to perceptions of outside interference. As a result, they say, any increase of aid must be gradual and carefully planned, because in any case political change, if it does come, will also come slowly.

Part three of a three-part series