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How Will New US Sanctions Affect Burma? - 2003-07-18

The United States is imposing new trade sanctions on Burma to protest the military government's treatment of democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers. But will the sanctions have any effect on the generals?

Short of actual war, economic sanctions are perhaps the most potent weapon in a country's diplomatic arsenal - but they can be controversial.

Proponents say sanctions are the most effective way to demonstrate disapproval and to put pressure on a government. Opponents - including pro-business groups and, of course, the affected government - say they hurt ordinary people by killing off jobs, and do not bring about change.

Burma has already been under some limited U.S. sanctions, which banned direct foreign investment by U.S. firms. They were first imposed in 1997 in response to military government repression against the democracy movement.

The tougher U.S. sanctions ban all imports from Burma and freeze Burmese assets in the United States.

These new measures were passed by Congress this week to show disapproval of the most recent detention of opposition NLD leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. A chorus of international objections has failed to win her release. Burma's ruling generals have instead effectively recanted statements that they might continue U.N.-mediated talks with her on a possible transition to democracy.

Noel Morada, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, believes the generals are most worried about assets being frozen. "Based on this very strong reaction that they gave since U.S. sanctions was announced," he said, "it looks like they're rather concerned because the U.S. has actually covered basically assets and financial stuff that is in the U.S."

Robert Templar, a Burma analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, believes the sanctions will probably not soften Burma's intransigent generals and may even have the opposite effect. "I think they tend to be more about making politicians feel as though they're doing something," said Mr. Templar.

"However, they don't often achieve the end that is desired," he continued, "and I think we've seen that elsewhere in the world, in Iraq and Cuba. But I think what they do is they probably unite the different groups within the Burmese military and create a sense of solidarity against the outside world. So if anything, they may even have a counterproductive force."

Analysts say sanctions also need strong diplomatic follow-up, especially by Burma's neighbors. Most of Burma's trade is with China and Thailand, and the new U.S. measure calls on those two countries to put pressure on Burma. Mr. Templar said the United States has to nudge those countries and Burma's fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

"Any sanctions need to be backed up by considerable diplomatic activity," said Mr. Templar. "If one simply imposes sanctions, you're left with a very static situation that doesn't really progress in any way. So what I think is needed now is a very strong push by the U.S. government to get China and other countries within ASEAN to apply very significant pressure on the junta in Burma."

Professor Morada said the United States is already unhappy with Thailand for failing to support the war with Iraq. "Remember that Thailand was strongly criticized by the U.S. for not supporting the American war in Iraq," he said. "So probably they will also use this as a way of having to tell the Thais that the U.S. is not happy if [the Thais] continue with this constructive engagement [with Burma] as well."

China has said the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi is purely an internal matter. Analysts say that as long as Beijing continues to trade with Burma and provide economic assistance, including weapons, the effect of sanctions will be limited.