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EU to Expand Sanctions Against Burma - 2004-10-11


The United States and European Union are moving ahead with tough new sanctions against Burma's military leaders. But other countries closer to Burma, including China, Thailand, and India, oppose the hard-line approach and refuse to cut commercial ties with Rangoon. Without regional support, it appears unlikely the latest sanctions will help usher democracy to the impoverished nation.

European Union officials have vowed to sharply expand their sanctions against Burma's repressive military government. The announcement came Saturday after a two-day summit between European and Asian leaders in Vietnam.

The European move builds on a similar effort by U.S. lawmakers last month. Europe and the United States have expressed repeated frustration and outrage with Burma's refusal to ease restrictions on pro-democracy political parties. Burma's opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest since May 2003.

Bart Jochems, a spokesman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry, which represents the European Union on the sanctions issue, says Burma simply refuses to respect basic human rights or engage other nations on the topic.

"Up until now the Burmese have been deaf for any talk, they have been saying no, no, no and no, we have been trying to talk to the Burmese for months, months and they just say no, no," said Mr. Jochems.

A series of repressive military dictatorships have governed Burma since 1962. Elections were held in 1990, but the current rulers refused to relinquish power when the National League for Democracy won by a landslide.

The new EU sanctions extend a visa blacklist for all of Burma's military leaders, freezes their overseas assets, and bans European and American companies from working with Burma's state-owned companies.

But critics of the sanctions say these latest measures, like previous economic punishments, will not help Burma's pro-democracy forces.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi argued against the hard-line measures during the European-Asia summit meeting in Hanoi. Mr. Koizumi, a staunch opponent of Burma's military junta, says he favors more engagement and fewer sanctions for the isolated nation.

Ron May of Australia's National University in Canberra, says the Japanese position reflects a growing frustration with the current lack of progress in Burma.

"Japan, I think more than anyone else, has been inclined towards the view that if things are going to change what we need to do is establish some sort of dialogue ? and I think the view is this sort of engagement is more like to bear fruit than a continued sanction," said Ron May.

Even EU supporters concede the sanctions themselves are not likely to force the military regime to give up power.

Burma's government did announce last year a seven-point plan for a transition to democracy, which would include some sort of elections and a new constitution. But since then, there has been no timetable nor any hard details unveiled.

Professor Khin Maung Kyi, a Burmese national living in Singapore, says the sanctions help highlight the problem, but cannot actually solve it.

"Sanctions has been quite effective as far as isolating the Burmese regime, so in that sense it is effective, but as far as regime change is concerned, it is very difficult," said Professor Khin. "This regime is not going to change that easily."

Professor Khin says sanctions' impact is limited because Burma remains largely immune to economic pressures from the West.

China, Thailand, even India continue to trade with Burma and are looking to increase ties with the military-led country.

Burma exports close to $1 billion a year in natural gas, which is well over twice the potential windfall from trade with the United States or European Union.

And while it remains one of the world's poorest countries, regional trade gives the military government just enough income to maintain its current hold on power.

Aung San Suu Kyi insists pressure must be maintained on the corrupt regime before it will consider change. But unless Burma's neighbors agree to an embargo, human right's advocates say change may be a long way off.

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