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Is Burma a Sanctions Success Story?

In 2008, writing at the UK Independent, Paul Vallely contemplated whether to support sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. The article was Vallely basically thinking out loud, and he launched his train of thought with the following question: Have sanctions ever worked? Not often, he decided. He listed South Africa among the few success stories, and Burma among the failures.

But it may be time to revisit the judgment on Burma. The country’s ruling party, now led by Thein Sein, has begun releasing political prisoners and has indicated that more freedom is on the way, in what some are terming Burma’s glasnost. And today, the Wall Street Journal reports that Burma has requested American and British monitors for April’s parliamentary elections, with the hope that Western sanctions will be eased if Burma can demonstrate continued movement toward democracy. Additionally, while sanctions are usually criticized as disproportionately damaging to the population rather than the government, there is much evidence that this simply isn’t the case in Burma.

As Min Zin wrote in late January:

Contrary to what you might think from the headlines, it’s not western sanctions that are causing Burma’s economic woes. It’s government policy. The Burmese government’s Industry Minister, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, admitted as much when he responded to a journalist who asked whether the country has done enough to get U.S. sanctions lifted: “We have a lot of things to reform and lots of things have to change: laws, regulations and institutions, not only in the political sector but also in the economic sectors. But sanctions are up to them.”

[…]

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2010 Burma’s exports and imports stood at $8.7 billion and $4.9 billion respectively. That’s higher than the data for some of the comparable members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), such as Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, many experts caution that the official figures for Burma’s exports fall far short of the real numbers because they don’t cover the value of timber, gems, narcotics, rice, and other products smuggled to neighboring countries.

As far as foreign direct investment (FDI) is concerned, Burma reached a record high in 2010-11 of almost $20 billion. That’s more than the figure in the same year for Southeast Asia’s latest investment darling, Vietnam.

There is reason to proceed with caution, of course, not least because Burma, even taking the optimistic view, is still at the beginning of what can be a long process, and we’ve already reestablished diplomatic relations with the country. The parliamentary elections themselves will carry more symbolism than change, as the Journal notes:

The April 1 vote isn’t expected to dramatically change the political balance of power in Myanmar, which held its first election in 20 years in 2010 but is still dominated by current or former soldiers linked to the country’s former military regime. The vote is being held to fill 48 parliamentary seats that were vacated over the past year in a parliament that has more than 600 seats overall.

Still, Western sanctions against Burma have not seemed to impoverish its citizens and have, at least recently, been an effective tool to encourage reform. Obviously the biggest change happened when Thein Sein took over from his predecessor, so it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to suggest that sanctions alone are responsible for the progress. But proponents of sanctions could use another success story, and Burma may yet provide it.


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