An expected review of US policy towards poverty-stricken Myanmar has reignited the debate over the effectiveness of sanctions against the country.
The persecution of Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi - who has spent about 14 of the last 20 years in detention - and the harassment of her pro-democracy party, was the underlying rationale for sanctions imposed by the European Union (EU) in 1996 and the US a year later.
But in an acknowledgment that sanctions were failing, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a review of Washington's stance towards Myanmar in February. The review is expected to be completed soon.
"Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta," she said.
The news was followed by an unprecedented meeting on 15 August between the head of Myanmar's military government, Senior General Than Shwe, and US Senator Jim Webb, the highest-ranking US official to hold talks with the leader.
The meeting came days after Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to a further 18 months of house arrest, sparking further EU sanctions.
For those who favour engagement over sanctions, the meeting between the US senator and the senior general in Naypyidaw raised hopes of a breakthrough.
But for those who believe sanctions the government offer the best way to free the opposition leader, and promote democracy and human rights in Myanmar, the encounter was an act of appeasement.
|The counterproductive nature of sanctions outweighs any benefits perceived, such as 'sending a strong message' and 'punishing the regime|
Lack of funding
Myanmar is one of the least-funded countries worldwide, and its citizens are among the poorest in Southeast Asia.
A 2005 UN Development Programme (UNDP) household survey found that one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. But Aung San Suu Kyi's continued detention remains a key obstacle for donors.
In 2007, the nation received just US$4 per person in overseas development assistance, less than any of the poorest 50 countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Cambodia and Laos - countries with similar poverty levels - received $47 and $68 respectively for the same period.
And while Myanmar saw a rare infusion of donor money after Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, a disaster that left close to 140,000 people dead, more than a year later, recovery efforts remain critically under-funded.
Of the $691 million needed for the Post-Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan, only $100 million has been raised to address health, shelter, water and sanitation, and agriculture needs.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
|Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was ordered to spend 18 more months under house on 11 August|
Sanctions have a role
However, Burmese activists still favour sanctions as a form of political pressure, and argue that lifting them would legitimize the military government. They also maintain that the measures only affect people and businesses linked to the junta.
The EU has a policy of "targeted measures", including a ban on arms sales and visas, and asset freezes.
A senior British Foreign Office official with the Southeast Asia department in London said these sanctions "send a strong political message about our determination to see real democracy established, and human rights respected".
Rather than sanctions affecting living standards, it is "poor governance and economic mismanagement that has resulted in the problems Myanmar faces today", said the official, who requested anonymity in line with government policy.
He stressed that EU sanctions against the country's gem, mining and timber sectors were "specifically targeted at the business interests of the military regime and those associated with them, rather than ordinary people".
Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar's economy from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, said there was no doubt that the junta "got the message" from targeted sanctions.
"Especially effective in this context are the [US and EU] visa bans, combined with the financial sanctions imposed by the US," said Turnell.
"Together they provide a substantial - though not entirely insurmountable - barrier to connected figures sending their kids to US colleges. This hurts," he said.
But while Turnell agreed that sanctions had an impact by sending "signals" to the junta, he conceded that they had failed to achieve any significant changes in its behaviour.
"I don't believe anything can," he added.
Photo: Stacey Winston/ECHO
|A young child grasps a bowl of food in Myanmar's cyclone-affected Ayeyarwady Delta. Close to 140,000 people were killed in the category four storm|
Senator Webb followed his visit by writing that sanctions had been "overwhelmingly counterproductive", and argued for greater engagement with the Myanmar government.
"The ruling regime has become more entrenched and at the same time more isolated. The Burmese people have lost access to the outside world," Webb wrote on 25 August in The New York Times.
Sanctions have failed to persuade the junta to institute political reform and have made the situation "demonstrably worse", according to Derek Tonkin, a retired British diplomat to the region and veteran Myanmar observer.
"The counterproductive nature of sanctions outweighs any benefits perceived, such as 'sending a strong message' and 'punishing the regime'," Tonkin told IRIN.
The west "has lost political influence with Myanmar and has surrendered its economic and commercial interests to countries in the region" as a result of sanctions, he said.
Tonkin, a long-time critic of sanctions - except on the sale of arms - said a better approach would be for the US and the EU to review their sanctions policies.
"They should then remove those sanctions which demonstrably affect the Burmese people, and allow the ADB [Asian Development Bank], World Bank and IMF to complete a substantive reappraisal of what needs to be done to restore economic and financial stability," he said.
"Isolation and ostracism can never promote democratic reforms in the country," said Tonkin.