US Sanctions Against Burma: Neither Rhyme Nor Reason

5 September 2012 FDI Team

US sanctions may achieve the opposite to what is intended by weakening the ability of the Burmese president and his supporters to carry out the anticipated reforms.


The Obama Administration has declared that the renewal of US economic sanctions against Burma represents ‘insurance’ against the Thein Sein government backsliding on its reform program. Congressional supporters of this policy claim that such pressures actually prompted the reforms and are needed to keep Naypyidaw on the right track.


Current US policy towards Burma represents an awkward compromise. The Obama Administration has publicly acknowledged the failure of past economic sanctions. It has stated that it wants to encourage President Thein Sein’s ambitious reform program, and to achieve certain foreign policy goals — such as severing Burma’s defence relations with North Korea. To these ends, Washington has made a number of concessions to assist the government in Naypyidaw. Yet Congress contains some implacable opponents of Burma’s hybrid civilian-military government, who refuse to acknowledge the extraordinary paradigm shift that has occurred over the past 18 months. They seem convinced that continued pressure is required to produce a real democracy in Burma.

The White House is unwilling to pick a fight with Congress on this issue. It faces other problems that have a higher priority. Consequently — and probably reluctantly — it has endorsed Congress’s position. However, as David Steinberg suggested recently in an insightful and persuasive piece for East Asia Forum, the US’s hard line seems to represent wilful blindness in the face of clear evidence that sanctions did not prompt the current reform program. In fact, after 20 years of US pressure Burma’s military regime was stronger than it had ever been. That was probably one reason why the armed forces felt able to hand over power to an ‘elected’ administration in March 2011. Nor will sanctions encourage further reforms. Indeed, they are likely to have the opposite result.

The US’s approach is not only misguided, but potentially quite harmful. For economic sanctions are bound to hurt many ordinary Burmese. Also, Washington’s hard line will impede the implementation of reforms — most of which will depend on foreign capital, technology and expertise. It also weakens the position of the president and other reformers in Burma, and strengthens the hand of conservatives opposed to the scope and pace of change. US policies alone will not cause the reform process to stall but, should that occur, Washington would have to accept some responsibility for the resulting political and social crises. 

To all those who saw the Obama Administration’s ‘pragmatic engagement’ policy as a positive step, the renewal of US sanctions is a real disappointment. It may reflect other agendas in Congress, but at the international level it sends entirely the wrong message — to the Thein Sein government, to the Burmese people, to regional countries and to the wider international community. Granted, in human rights terms Naypyidaw still has a long way to go, and in foreign policy terms it has resisted taking some important steps, such as cutting ties with Pyongyang. Yet there is now a wide consensus that the best way of encouraging progress on these fronts is through closer engagement and practical assistance. This has been recognised by every country in the world except the US, which stands alone in imposing sanctions against Burma.

Andrew Selth

Senior Visiting Fellow 

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