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By **Joel Whitney**

joel_whitney.jpgIn a new interview with TODAY’s Ann Curry, Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi reports that her party, the National League for Democracy, will reconsider its position on sanctions. This could signal an important change for human rights, and could lead to sanctions becoming increasingly obsolete.

After nearly two decades of house arrest, Suu Kyi was freed last November. Perhaps no world leader quite matches her in democratic appeal. It’s worth remembering she took over Burma’s main democratic opposition party (1988), won the leadership of her country (1990), was denied her position in government when the ruling junta canceled the results, won the Nobel Peace Prize (1991); all but the first happened in her first term of house arrest.

The Litany of Horrors

In Burma at large, hundreds of her peers are political prisoners, routinely tortured; hundreds of thousands of refugees languish in miserable camps in Thailand and around Burma’s frontier. Minority factions are subject to rape as a weapon of war, systematic destruction of their villages (more than 2000 villages are reported by rights organizations to have been destroyed, surrounded by landmines). There are accounts of mass forced labor, infanticide, ethnic cleansing, targeted killings.

The Sanctions Reflex

It was this litany of horrors that made me reflexively pro-sanctions when I first reported on Burma (here in The New Republic, and here in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine). I was being a human rights absolutist. Yet I knew enough about sanctions in Cuba to oppose them, and have always been skeptical of sanctions on Iran. Regardless, the litany above triggered my sanctions reflex. Not to mention that sanctions worked in South Africa. Perhaps most convincing of all has been that Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD have always supported sanctions.

But as the video below makes clear, that may not be their position much longer.

As Curry points out, if the regime is so bad—having just added fake elections to their impressive CV—why consider a shift on sanctions now? (An aside: notice Curry says “arbitrary decisions.” I think that should read “arbitrary detentions.”)

The Sanctions Ghetto

It’s easy, when reporting on Burma, to find your work (especially on human rights and sanctions) informed largely by Western Burma watchers and Burmese exiles. The problem with listening solely to these groups is one of logistics. However much moral authority and conviction they have, they cannot know the effect of sanctions while they remain outside Burma. Regimes as atrocious as Burma’s have made it nearly impossible to do systematic research on such matters within the country; they don’t welcome journalists. As we saw during the Saffron Revolution, and as documented in the film Burma VJ, they much prefer to shoot them point-blank.

But starting in 2007 and 2008 two voices in particular started to change my mind, or at least soften my conviction. In his history of Burma, Thant Myint-U argued that over the long haul of millennia, Burma’s leaders, generation after generation, have grown increasingly isolated. This hurt the country as a whole, the leaders included. Sanctions only intensify this isolation, and throw Burma into the arms of that other sanctions-buster and democratic holdout, China. I interviewed Thant Myint-U about this last month.

We have nothing in common

Likewise, Morten Pedersen, who spent years inside Burma and managed to talk to all sorts of people, believes that going much beyond arms embargoes, which cannot be enforced, and into the kinds of tight sanctions some Burma watchers want is counterproductive. It hurts ordinary people to ban, for instance, Western travel or aid to Burma. And, again, it pushes Burma toward China, who will have none of it when it comes to sanctions.

Furthermore, Burma’s leaders aren’t just mean; they’re paranoid. To leverage them, isolate them, and tell them they’re evil not only hasn’t worked. It’s often made them more paranoid. We saw this when they turned away US aid ships after 2008’s Cyclone Nargis, aid sincerely sent but thoughtlessly delivered on US military ships. Pedersen’s coup de grace against sanctions was the fine point that South Africa’s whites in the business community around the apartheid government could be leveraged by sanctions because they saw the Europeans sanctioning them as their peer group. No such dynamic in Burma.

Is it collective punishment?

Have these less optimistic views on sanctions penetrated Suu Kyi’s NLD? It would seem so; they at least feel the need to address them. As she tells Curry in the longer interview below, sanctions are a political tool. People who support them are offering a punitive action against rights violators. But Suu Kyi adds that their economic consequences must be examined. Or, as Pedersen told me in the interview we did in June, forcing millions of ordinary Burmese to suffer under sanctions must be considered under the broad rubric of the morality of sanctions.

Some of the context around the NLD’s reexamination of sanctions can be found in the January 24 issue of The New Yorker. In an interview done in December by Joshua Hammer, Suu Kyi answers sanctions critics with a question: “How do [critics of sanctions] know that sanctions have not been effective, have not prevented certain things from taking place? It’s not a transparent regime, so that we do not know what is really going on…” Indeed, this has always been the problem. Is it possible all this phony electioneering and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi are part of a public relations campaign that have emerged exactly because sanctions do work? Sure. But none of that would answer Pedersen’s main charge, and what Suu Kyi herself must want to know: how much suffering do sanctions cause?

For another defense of sanctions, see Zoya Phan of Burma Campaign UK, here. She tells me, “We had [no sanctions] for almost ten years up till 1997. During that time, despite billions of dollars of investment, there was no political progress, spending on services did not increase. But the size of the army did—it doubled—securing the regime’s grip on power.”

Perhaps this is why sanctions are still considered worthwhile by a bipartisan consensus, for instance, of US legislators. If Suu Kyi and the NLD abandon them, there will be no turning back. And it will be hard to keep them without proving that their effect on ordinary Burmese is negligible, which seems like a hard argument to make. If Burma sanctions go, what will be left to leverage rights violators? That is perhaps the big question for human rights campaigners.

Copyright 2011 Guernica Magazine


Joel Whitney is an editor of Guernica. Read his interview with Deeyah on banned musicians here. Joel’s writing and commentary have appeared in World Policy Journal, The New Republic, The Village Voice, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Paris Review, The Nation, Agni, New York magazine—and on NPR. He lives in Brooklyn. He’s on Twitter.

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