David I. Steinberg

Kyi May Kaung has made a poignant, if personalized, argument against those who think that sanctions are not an effective policy instrument to achieve what I believe all of us want–a better life for the diverse Burmese peoples. The plight of these peoples deserves our sympathy and our actions. The issue is: what policies externally imposed or fostered will assist in the amelioration of that state’s present deplorable conditions? Unfortunately, her argument does not propose any new approach, nor does it stand up to analysis.

Sanctions are one of a number of possible policy tools by which to try to induce change in any state whose actions are in some manner anathema to the imposing state or to the people of the state being affected. They may vary in cause, intensity, depth, and duration. U.S. sanctions on Burma/Myanmar were imposed first in 1988 and were limited to prohibitions on military equipment and economic assistance. In 1997, they were additionally imposed on new U.S. investments and some senior Myanmar official travel to the U.S. They were further increased in 2003 to include imports to the United States, the use of U.S. banking systems (including credit cards), and further travel restrictions. The policy does not affect tourist or other travel (as do U.S. sanctions against Cuba), but high-level U.S. officials have been prevented from going to discuss issues not by law, but by U.S. administrative edict.

Have these sanctions negatively affected the power of the regime or caused it to improve policies? The answer is clearly no, and the military in Myanmar is more powerful than ever before in its history. Was this because of sanctions? Clearly not; other factors, such as the support of China and India as rivals for Burmese favors, have been important, as has the attractions of Burma/Myanmar’s extensive natural resources and market.

Sanctions have had effects, however. They have pushed Myanmar further into the Sino-centric economic and strategic orbit, and encouraged the military regime to retreat further into intellectual isolation. Although sanctions against military sales target a regime, broad sanctions inevitably hurt ordinary people as well. Over the longer term, these delay the changes that at some point will inevitably come to that country, and do not serve U.S. national interests in that region.

Should the United States and other countries try to induce reforms in Myanmar? Certainly we and others should. But how? The issue is a tactical one, for the potential end goal is one that we all share together with the bulk of the Burmese peoples — better political, economic, and cultural lives for all of them.

One major problem with sanctions is that they are easy to impose and very difficult to eliminate, for various interest groups have agendas, no matter how noble, that impede the elimination of sanctions except for sweeping, and far more difficult, changes in regimes or conditions. The immediate moral stance trumps longer-term policy changes. On a personal level, I have been against sanctions because I believed they would not result in their objective – regime change and better conditions for the Burmese. But once imposed, the sanctions cannot be removed without major, clear reforms within Myanmar. I continue to believe this and have so informed the officials of that state.

The major forces affecting Burma/Myanmar have backed themselves into rigid positions. The Burmese military, the National League for Democracy and its internal and expatriate supporters, and the United States (with the European Union, etc.) have taken positions under which compromise is difficult. Respect, call it if you will “face,” is required for all parties to move from their stances that retard progress. This can best be approached through quiet dialogue, which is the position I have advocated. Insulting the Burmese regime simply intensifies their recalcitrance and their anticipation of U.S. attempts to overthrow their government.

It is simple hubris to maintain that only expatriate Burmese can be the forum through which conditions in, and progress on, Burma/Myanmar can take place, or that they alone can act as the arbiters or explainers of internal Burmese conditions. Indeed, because conditions are so controlled there, the case for direct access is enhanced. Expatriates are important, but are not sufficient.

Surely one wants the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, a free press, a pluralistic political system, and some appropriate degree of autonomy for minority peoples. The external actors should be attempting to convince the Burmese military that these are in the Burmese national interests.

Neither foreign investment nor the indigenous private sector will bring instant democracy to Myanmar (witness South Korea and Taiwan, which took over a generation for real political change). So, elimination of sanctions alone will not solve the economic malaise. Even without sanctions, foreign investment in Myanmar is decidedly difficult. There are no neutral dispute settlement institutions and no independent judicial system or regulations. Even corruption is unpredictable, and under the entourage system some patron (whose role may be ephemeral) is essential. Along with the development of civil society and non-governmental organizations, however, such foreign investment fosters pluralism and eventual change, although the process is likely to be long indeed. I continue to believe that general economic assistance, as contrasted with humanitarian aid, is not justified given the policy problems of that government.

The United States has indeed “outsourced” its Burma/Myanmar policy to Aung San Suu Kyi (note Section 1106, “Limitation on the United States Voluntary Contributions to the United Nations Development Program” of the Foreign Affairs and Restructuring Act of 1998). During a congressional hearing at which I testified, Congressman James Leach as chairman said that because Aung San Suu Kyi was in favor of sanctions, Congress would extend those sanctions. No matter how brave or noble any foreign leader may be, and I have expressed my admiration for her in the past, the United States should never be so dependent on any single foreign leader.

There are no easy answers for Burma/Myanmar’s problems, and there are even fewer options for external actors no matter how well meaning. Change must be generated internally; eventually this will happen. The role of outsiders is to encourage change through dialogue, no matter how difficult. Isolation simply reinforces the predilections of Burmese leaders who are already insulated from the concerns of their own people and the outside world.

Kyi May Kaung

David Steinberg’s opening statement on sanctions and Burma, “Minimizing the Miasma in Myanmar,” is woolly and disappointing in the extreme. About 75% of his sentences are incomprehensible, as he careens between pro-junta and anti-junta statements, with no clear logical argument.

Steinberg blames the victims (the dissidents), anti-regime rhetoric, and sanctions for all of the problems of Burma, something that is patently not true. As I have already pointed out in my own opening statement, many problems are due to the top-down system of economic planning and control and the one-party system (BSPP) instituted in 1962. The National League for Democracy is the only legitimate alternative, so what’s wrong in assuming that?

His conclusion seems to be — “let’s be nice to the junta, so it doesn’t get itself in a more isolated, nationalistic (read xenophobic) position.”

Even he concedes, however, that: “External conceptions of legitimacy are based on two factors: the importance of elections and the capacity of the state to deliver goods and services to its public. In both areas the military state has obviously failed.” Yes, it has.

He also argues, “Democracy is not simply fair elections, but a process of building strong, pluralistic institutions over time – a process significantly bridled by a pattern of personalized power” (my italics). But that’s just the point. There is too much central power in Burma. Surely Steinberg would not consider the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA) – commonly called “thugs” by the international media and compared to Nazi Brown Shirts — “a strong pluralistic institution?” The USDA carried out many attacks on the NLD and civilians, including the most notorious Black Friday, May 30, 2003 attack on Daw Suu and her entourage near Depayin.

Steinberg calls for “some fair, Burmese method of sharing power” (again my italics). In this and in his use of the name “Myanmar” in his title — although he vacillates in the text of his statement between using “Burma” and “Myanmar” albeit with Burma now the leading word — he betrays his primary loyalties. The Burmese junta has been stressing a culture based “disciplined democracy,” and it’s clear enough who defines who is Burmese: the army, of course. This was already spelled out in the Citizenship Law of the 1980s.

Steinberg calls for “specific mutual benchmarks.” As I pointed out already, detailed benchmarks are already in place.

He also calls for “a more knowledgeable, nuanced, calibrated and multi-faceted set of approaches.” I have done my part in spelling them out; he needs to do his.

He says the “stated goal” of sanctions was to “overthrow the regime” and that the analogy with South Africa is spurious. Where and when was all this “stated?” I have never seen these statements except in the writings of the anti-sanctions camp.

According to Steinberg, sanctions and related travel bans have cut off any effective higher level Western official contact with the military leadership. This is not true. There are no travel bans to Burma in effect. U.S. and western countries still have embassies in Rangoon. Instead, it is the junta that has manipulated the visits of the UN envoys.

In conclusion, the “miasma” is mainly in Steinberg’s paper. To everyone else it is abundantly clear that “Myanmar” is going only backwards and downwards.

Sanctions versus anti-sanctions is already an old debate. The international dissident movement, events on the ground in Burma, and the international community have already moved beyond it. In Cebu, the Philippines, ASEAN last week declined to defend Myanmar at the UN. This international pariah status has been with Myanmar for the last 40-plus years.

In the end, whatever Steinberg says, he remains an armchair academic, afflicted with Rangoonitis. In Evan Williams’s Frontline piece, now posted on YouTube, Burmese people are shown clearly saying, despite the danger to themselves, that they don’t want tourists, and the narrator says that Aung San Suu Kyi says that all trade just keeps the regime in power. I don’t know how all the academic words can weigh up against the images, each of which is truly worth a thousand words. Watch!

FPIF contributor David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor and Director, Asian Studies Program, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. FPIF contributor Kyi May Kaung is a Burmese dissident, artist, poet, and political analyst living in exile. She holds a doctorate in political economy from the University of Pennsylvania. Her 1994 dissertation argued for true democratic reforms in Burma and against the top-down system of control.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.