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Burma’s Redemption More Domestic Than Imported

Burma's gradual return to international good grace is probably more a case of homegrown changes than a result of economic sanctions, argues one influential analyst.
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Today’s diplomatic hardball over U.S. sanctions in Burma would be a great Graham Greene novel, were there any evidence the program played a central role in the dictatorship’s unraveling. Burma analyst Andrew Selth at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia and investigators at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, among others, argue that foreign pressure isn’t the stick that beat reform into Burma. It’s the carrot, and not much of one.

The basic argument is pretty simple and goes like this: Burma’s longtime strongman, Than Shwe, got old and passed power to a more moderate successor, Thein Sien, last year. The opposition decided it could work with the new ruler, and for the past year, the government and opposition figures have been slowly opening the country to the outside world.

“The changes,” Selth wrote in a widely read analysis in January, “…are largely the result of internal developments, notably Senior General Than Shwe’s retirement, the advent of the Thein Sein Government and Aung San Suu Kyi’s willingness to work with the new President.” Selth, who specializes in study of Burma’s shadowy military, lamented a “rather unseemly scramble by some foreign governments, activist groups, and individuals to claim credit for aspects of the reform.”

That’s an easy claim to make in Burma – or at least a hard one to disprove. Business in the dogleg-shaped nation (called Myanmar by its government and Burma by their opposition) is so opaque, and so closely tied to a military government, that no comprehensive estimates of the sanctions’ value appear to exist. Presumably intelligence agencies know, but that information isn’t public. We don’t know what the sanctions have cost the Burmese government, and we don’t know how those costs affected the regime’s decisions. The Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition media organization, claimed the sanctions “at a very rough guess ... deny the Burmese population some $3 billion annually,” but did not cite a source.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the country’s foreign minister in Washington this week, the headlines were all about whether she’d be telling him good news. She didn’t. Thursday, President Obama announced the U.S. would ease a few investment restrictions, plus send a U.S. ambassador to Myanmar for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. But he would not end the sanctions.

Burma’s neighbors China, India, and Thailand do not participate in the sanctions regime. Thailand announced late last year it would draw a quarter of its natural gas needs with purchases from Burma, which is resource rich. Three weeks ago, the European Union suspended its sanctions for a year.

It’s a greatly less glamorous story than the one where the world unites to bring an evil regime to its knees by cutting off its resources. Burma had plenty of resources anyway, it appears, and even amid sanctions had neighbors buying them.

“The regime responded” to sanctions, Selth argues, “by developing strong ties with China and improving relations with a wide range of other countries. These steps severely undercut the West's punitive measures. When the Obama Administration reviewed U.S. policy toward Burma in 2009, it concluded that sanctions were at best "modest inconveniences" to the military government.

If analysts like Selth are right though, the sanctions weren’t changing Burma. The Burmese were.