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Do Sanctions Just Add Insult to Injury for the Burmese People?

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If you look up the word sanction, the definition that occupies pride of place in most dictionaries is: permission or approval for a specific course of action. But, one of those words that gives English a bad rap, sanction has two other meanings that are the exact opposite. To wit: a penalty to ensure compliance and coercion to stop a nation from violating international law.

Even then, perhaps because it's too close to sanctuary, the worst sanctions seems to bode is a slap on the wrist. In fact, all too often, that is its effect on its intended targets, the government of a state, while the public suffers instead.

As if to confirm this, while visiting Japan and Indonesia in February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that 14 years of U.S. sanctions on Burma have made little impact on its ruling junta. Not only has there been no improvement in its human rights record, but the Burmese people have made little economic progress. Meanwhile, companies from South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, China, and India have rushed into the vacuum left by U.S. economic abstention.

First, the United States passed the Free Burma Act in 1995 to impose economic and trade sanctions on Burma for its wretched human-rights record. Next, in 1997, Bill Clinton issued a ban on most new investment in Myanmar. Then, in 2003, George W. Bush signed the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, which ended the importation of all Burmese products. Incorporated in this bill were smart sanctions -- like smart bombs, meant to zero in on a target -- which barred Burmese government officials from access to their funds in U.S. banks and investment houses, as well as denied them or their families visas.

More targeted sanctions followed in 2006 and, in 2008, the late California congressman who co-chaired the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, shepherded into law the JADE Act, which blocked the import of jade and other gems from Burma. Also, the European Union just extended its sanctions, which mirror those of the United States, for one more year.

If none of this has yet proven effective, the question arises: Do sanctions ever work?

Sanctions' biggest success story thus far has been South Africa, where they were credited with helping to end apartheid. Also, freezing 25 million dollars of North Korean funds brought Pyongyang back to the nuclear negotiating table, at least for a while.

On the other hand, a series of sanctions on Iran have failed to persuade it to abandon its uranium enrichment program. Nor have they weakened Fidel Castro's grip on power. Then, of course, there's their most appalling failure: Hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq died for lack of access to antibiotics and other drugs due to sanctions.

As for the net effect of sanctions on the Burmese, the case can be made that they're not hurting them economically -- because the people couldn't have been much worse off than they already were. In fact, unless the regime surrenders control of oil, gas, gems, and agriculture, the development of a middle class is likely impossible.

In light of that, the head of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Asia, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), has called for a more "constructive" policy on Burma. To accomplish the twin tasks of improving conditions for the Burmese people and opening up Burma to U.S. corporations, he favors confidence-building measures to expedite the repeal of sanctions.

Others, such as Chevron, one of the few American companies allowed to do business in Burma, call for rescinding the ban on new investments, while retaining the other smart sanctions. Interviewed for a 2008 Voice of America article, Gary Hufbauer, a sanctions expert, explains this line of thinking: ". . . if you can somehow deprive the elite of their bank accounts, of their schools in Switzerland [and] their travel. . . at least you don't penalize ordinary people [with] widespread ill-health or malnourishment."

Whoever came up with the term "smart sanctions" might have thought it was clever. But he or she forgot that, however designed to minimize civilian casualties, smart bombs gang can injure innocents. Smart sanctions, too, court unintended fallout, such as junta members with suddenly depleted bank accounts rooting around for new and exciting ways to loot the Burmese people.

What about them? How do the people feel about sanctions imposed by other nations?

In 2001, before smart sanctions were instituted, a survey by Burmese exile publication Irrawaddy found that, concerned with economic development though they were, almost 80 percent of 200 Burmese workers, editors, journalists and lawyers polled favored keeping the sanctions in place. But in 2007, the BBC reported:

"Sanctions don't work -- they're not the solution," one elderly man said. ... "We would like to have democracy, but the most important thing for us is to have peace, and enough food on our plates," one woman said.

Then Anand Gopal of the Christian Science Monitor recently told us: "When I was in Burma last year I asked a lot of people what they thought of the sanctions and they mostly were against it." He also reminds us of an inescapable truth about sanctions in general -- that they're basically a "way to punish the Burmese people for having such an awful leadership."

Many Burma watchers don't expect a change soon. For example, Vice President Joe Biden, they note, was a key player in the JADE Act's passage. Also, just last week, Agence France Presse reported, an assistant secretary for legislative affairs, Richard Verma, wrote a letter to Rep. Peter King (R-NY) asserting that sanctions would remain in place. But the first definite indicator of the Obama administration's intentions towards Burma comes May 15, when it decides whether to extend Clinton's New Investment Ban. We'll allow Irrawaddy the final word on sanctions:

"The most significant 'sanctioner' on Burma is none other than the country's ruling regime itself, which has created an environment in which genuine transformative economic activity is scarcely possible, let alone similarly efficacious foreign investment or trade."