Letting Burma Back In

Experts debate whether the role of sanctions was successful in opening up Burma. But with the up-coming by-elections and the release of political prisoners, the greater challenge may be how to lift them.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

An hour after landing in Burma this January, I sat on the floor of a tiny bamboo house in a suburb of Rangoon, sharing lunch with a half dozen women who had just walked out of prison following an amnesty of political prisoners.  There was much I wanted to ask them:  about their treatment (it got better over time, thanks, they all insisted, to international pressure), about their plans (get a good night’s sleep, and then right back to political work), and their fears (chiefly, that with dissidents streaming out of prisons and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi heading into parliament, the West would declare Burma a success and move on).  But there was one question to which I kept coming back:  "Why are you free?"

I posed a variation of that question to everyone I met in Burma — dissidents, government officials, journalists and academics.  Why is the Burmese government promising now rights and freedoms that, for decades, it sent people to prison for demanding?  Why is it so eager now to draw Aung San Suu Kyi into the country’s political life, after so many years of trying to blot her out?  Not everyone agreed on the precise reasons.  But there was a common theme to their answers:  After years of serving a military that was shunned, hated, or ridiculed for running Burma into the ground, "they" — Burma’s president, Thein Sein, and those behind him — want "legitimacy and respect."  They want to be on better terms with their people, and for Burma to be on better terms with the world.

It is plain that the Burmese people deserve most of the credit for their rulers’ change of heart.  For years, they faced unrelenting brutality from above, yet sustained a political movement dedicated to non-violence and national reconciliation. Time and again, they organized themselves in sophisticated and principled ways, not just to demand political freedom, but to respond to natural disasters, to deliver to themselves the basic services their government neglected, and to remain connected to the outside world.  In Aung San Suu Kyi, they also had something that dissident movements in most dictatorships lack — a leader clearly capable of unifying their country and leading its government.  The military may have held all the power in Burma.  But she and her movement held all the legitimacy.

Even in the years when Burma’s democracy movement seemed silenced and defeated, pressure from below manifested itself in conversations in marketplaces and monasteries, in acts of passive resistance, in the flight of talented people from the country.  Then, every so often, it would burst into the open, as it did in the 2007 Saffron Revolution.  With brute force, the military survived that challenge (a reminder that the road to change in Burma has been far from peaceful).  But many Burmese believe that some army officers felt shame about the violence they inflicted on the revered Buddhist monks who led that uprising, and about their government’s deadly incompetence the following year when a cyclone ravaged the country.  When Burma’s long-serving dictator Than Shwe retired in 2010, the generation of officers that succeeded him undoubtedly included some men affected by Burma’s traumas who wanted a way out of the morass it was in.

The more controversial question is whether pressure from outside, including Western sanctions, also contributed to these changes.  I’ve hesitated to weigh in strongly on this debate, partly because it is hard to set aside one’s own bias (those, like me, who supported sanctions naturally want to believe that they helped — and vice versa), and partly because it’s premature to argue about what caused Burma’s transition to democracy when that transition is not remotely complete.  Perhaps in twenty years, when archives are studied and the key players have told their stories, a consensus will emerge.  And then someone will come along to disprove it.

At the same time, I have found it disconcerting to hear diplomats and other observers assert with certainty that sanctions had nothing to do with Burma’s political opening.  After all, the United States and other countries imposed sanctions to promote a particular objective in Burma, and now that objective seems on the verge of being achieved.  It’s as if we had turned a hose on a raging fire and, after seeing the flames subside, said:  "How did that happen?  It couldn’t have been the water we sprayed."  In neither case does correlation prove causality – a sanctioned state can change course for reasons unrelated to sanctions, just as a doused fire can burn out on its own.  But it is strange not to consider that one’s efforts had their intended effect.  

One reason why the Burma sanctions are often discounted is that many officials who imposed them over the years themselves lacked faith in the strategy they were pursuing.  Bill Clinton and George W. Bush pushed through sanctions mostly to express solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi; others in the U.S. government saw them as a symbolic expression of America’s disgust with the Burmese junta, or simply as a way of appeasing Congressional and public concerns on an issue that was not strategically important.  Few of them actually expected that sanctions might work!

But some advocates of sanctions had a more reasoned theory of the case. 

First, they believed that Western sanctions would create at least some objective difficulties for the Burmese government.  The generals might not care at first about sanctions’ impact on Burma’s economy as a whole (which was always harmed more by their own mismanagement), and they might compensate for any harm to their personal finances by doing business with China.  But the argument that sanctions would drive Burma into the arms of the Chinese turned out to be an argument for sanctions, not against them, since that was not a place where Burma’s nationalistic military leaders wanted to be for long.

Second, sanctions proponents expected that eventually, Burma’s leaders would want to develop their country’s economy and to improve their standing in the world.  To achieve those goals, they would need access to the very things that sanctions had denied them:  Western investment, markets and banks, and better relations with the United States.  At that point, as I argued in testimony to the Congress in 2004, the U.S. would say to the Burmese government:  "You cannot make a separate peace with us.  Reach a compromise with your opposition first." The idea was that sanctions would give the U.S. negotiating leverage, which it could transfer to Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition.  The government would need their support to win relief from international pressure, and to get their support it would have to satisfy some of their basic demands, including the release of political prisoners, and ultimately to bring them into the political system.

Of course, no one had a clue when any of this might happen.  After Burma’s deeply flawed 2010 elections, I thought sanctions would likely have to be tightened further to produce the desired effect; I was wrongly dismissive of those who argued that a new generation of military officers with a new outlook might already be coming to the fore.  Exactly how and why that happened will be for historians to answer.  But once it did, the Obama administration reached out to them, and Burma’s leaders acted as we had long hoped:  they started talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, and engineered new elections designed to bring the democratic opposition into parliament.  And they acknowledged that they were doing this in part because it was necessary to improve relations with the outside world, and to get sanctions lifted.

Everyone I spoke to in Burma, whether they had supported or opposed sanctions in the past, assumed that the reformist president Thein Sein was using the promise of relief from sanctions in his arguments with hard liners in the government.  All argued that the international community must now find ways of rewarding Thein Sein to help him win those arguments.  And they acknowledged that Western countries only have carrots to offer today because of the sticks they employed in the past — every diplomatic and economic sanction they imposed created a card they can play now, as serious political negotiations finally get underway in Burma.

Burma’s April 1st parliamentary by-elections are the next important milestone in that process, and should, if they go well, trigger additional rewards from the West.  But the elections are not the next big test of reform.  Both Burma’s opposition and its president want Aung San Suu Kyi to win a seat — they need her to champion their cause in the government, and he needs her to legitimize that government.  And if her party wins, it will control only a tiny fraction of seats in the current parliament.

As remarkable as the changes in Burma have been — with some political prisoners walking free, and real debate breaking out from the front pages of the country’s newspapers to the hearing rooms of its parliament — the big tests lie ahead.  Laws that criminalize dissent are still on the books.  Burma’s military continues to commit war crimes against ethnic minority populations on the country’s frontiers, and still does not answer to its president, parliament or judiciary.   Burma’s Constitution gives the military unchecked authority over all matters of internal security, the power to veto constitutional changes and even to dismiss the president.

The elections that really matter in Burma will not come until 2015, when most of the parliament will be up for election.  If that vote is free and fair, the opposition will be in a strong position to win.  Hundreds of former military officers who now serve as members of the pro-government party would then be swept aside.  And Aung San Suu Kyi would be able to form a government of her own.   It is far from clear yet if the military will allow that.  This means that Western countries need to walk a fine line:  rewarding the changes that have already taken place, but conserving some leverage, through 2015, to secure the harder changes hopefully still to come.

Another reason to move gradually is that absent deeper political and economic reform, lifting all sanctions might not even help Burma’s economy, much less its hopes for democracy.  If all restrictions on doing business with Burma were removed, for example, much of the money would likely flow to military-owned companies or conglomerates run by the rising class of oligarchs linked to the military, that control Burma’s most lucrative export industries, such as natural gas, timber and gems.  This kind of investment would only reinforce the military’s failed development strategy of pulling natural resources out of the ground, converting them into cash, and storing that cash in off shore, off budget accounts for the benefit of the elite.  Indeed, one of the salutary effects sanctions may have had during the years of dictatorship in Burma was to slow down, even if slightly, the process by which its natural wealth was plundered, laundered overseas, or put to uses (such as weapons purchases) that did nothing for its people.

A smarter way to lift sanctions, assuming political progress continues, would be to relax them first on those sectors of Burma’s economy from which ordinary people are more likely to benefit (such as agriculture and manufacturing), while maintaining them for some time longer on those sectors from which only the military benefits.

Above all, we should set our sights high when we think of Burma’s future.  A few years ago, when soldiers were gunning down monks and students on the streets of Rangoon, many people might have been satisfied to see Burma evolve into a country as "free" as Vietnam or Cambodia.  But Burma may now have leaders, in government and opposition, with the vision to take it so much further, if only they can overcome the resistance of those who still have a stake in the status quo.  Western countries can help, if they ease sanctions more strategically, and less reflexively, than they put them into place.

Tom Malinowski is a candidate for the Democratic nomination in New Jersey's 7th congressional district. He served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President Barack Obama, from 2014 to 2017. Before that, he was Washington director for Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @Malinowski

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