Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?
Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Asia 6 minutes

Myanmar: Sanctions, Engagement or Another Way Forward?

Myanmar's National Convention, dormant since the mid 1990s, is due to reconvene on 17 May 2004.

Executive Summary

Myanmar's National Convention, dormant since the mid 1990s, is due to reconvene on 17 May 2004. If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy (NLD) Deputy Chairman Tin Oo are released before then (as it is now widely assumed they will be) and if the NLD is able to effectively participate in its work (which is much less certain), the Convention process provides an opportunity to move beyond the desolate political stalemate which has prevailed in one form or another since the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1988.

That said, it is difficult to be confident that Myanmar's military government is any more willing to give content to a genuine constitutional reform process than it has been in the past. Despite the government restructuring and seven-step "roadmap" for constitutional and political reform that were announced last August in response to international outrage at the events of 30 May 2003 (when Suu Kyi's motorcade was attacked and a major new crackdown on the NLD began), the realities of the situation are that the military government retains all the levers of power, is as firmly in control as ever, and is showing no more signs of enthusiasm for a rapid transition to a full and genuine democratic system than it has ever done. While last August's shake-up saw Senior General Than Shwe relinquish his post as prime minister to the head of military intelligence, Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, the latter is not a democrat by any definition and remains constrained by hard-line elements in the army command structure.

So there is a real risk that, instead of the long-awaited political breakthrough, the clock has simply been turned back a decade and the stage set for a replay with the same actors, the same script and, quite possibly, the same ending. About the only basis for any optimism is that Khin Nyunt is sensitive to demands that Aung San Suu Kyi be released and given a role in the transition, appears to be seeking some form of accommodation with other political forces in the country, and also appears to be conscious of the need to make significant progress before Myanmar assumes the ASEAN presidency in 2006. His rise at least opens space for officers and officials who understand the limitations of the current approach to nation-building and economic development in a country facing an ever more serious humanitarian crisis. While far from ideal, the new roadmap provides at least a chance to begin a process of longer-term political and economic change. Considering the political orientation of the military and its all-dominant position within the country, it may be the best opportunity for some time to come.

If the country is to move forward, the main antagonists must overcome the more than 50 years of continuous conflict that underlie the current crisis of governance, including the increasingly serious humanitarian situation. Myanmar urgently needs a new constitution that deals not only with the distribution of power at the centre but equally importantly with local autonomy and ethnic rights. Strong institutions must be built outside the armed forces, which have dominated all aspects of public life for so long. It is vitally important to promote the conditions for broad-based economic growth and alleviate the struggle over scarce resources that is creating conflict at all levels of society.

The question, as always, for the international community is how it can best help make all this happen: how can the relevant players assist in creating an environment in which positive change is possible? It has to be frankly acknowledged that the present long-standing approaches have been largely ineffectual. Neither Western countries, who insist on both early and comprehensive democratic reform, nor Myanmar's neighbours, who prioritise regional stability and economic progress, have come up with solutions to the political deadlock and policy paralysis that obstruct progress toward either objective. The military is firmly in charge, while the economy remains unreformed and perilously unstable. Ethnic conflict continues, as do drug trafficking, illegal migration, and a burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic, each in its own way a threat to regional security.

At least in and of themselves, sanctions freeze a situation that does not appear to contain the seeds of its own resolution. The military, despite its many policy failures, has stayed in power since 1962, and there are no indications that external pressure has changed its will or capacity to do so for the foreseeable future. On the contrary, sanctions -- so long as they are not universally applied (and there is no ground for believing they ever will be, given attitudes in the region and the politics of the UN Security Council) -- confirm the suspicion of strongly nationalist leaders that the West aims to dominate and exploit Myanmar, and strengthen their resolve to resist.

The pro-democracy movement, symbolised bravely by Aung San Suu Kyi, remains alive in the hearts and minds of millions, but under the existing depressed political, social and economic conditions, it does not have the strength to produce political change. Sanctions may provide moral support for the embattled opposition, but they also contribute to the overall stagnation that keeps most people trapped in a daily battle for survival.

The widely expressed belief in the West that just a little more pressure might break the regime has little objective basis. It is certainly not shared by Myanmar's neighbours and most important trading partners, who strongly oppose coercive methods. If sanctions are to be anything more than a symbolic slap on the wrist, there is a need for more flexible diplomacy that involves the country's neighbours and allies and embraces other more forward-looking initiatives to help overcome the structural obstacles to political and economic development. But that diplomacy clearly needs to be much more purposeful than the limp 'engagement' strategies with which, most of the time, Myanmar's Asian neighbours have been content, and which have conspicuously failed to produce positive change inside the country.

The way forward proposed by ICG in this report has three elements, designed to bridge the gap between Western and regional positions and interests in a way that maintains pressure for reform, but at the same time increases the capacity -- and will -- to implement reform within Myanmar itself.

First, the whole international community -- including both its more confrontational and more accommodating members -- needs to rethink its basic objectives for Myanmar, balancing what is desirable against what is realistically achievable. Among other things that means recognising, however much one might wish otherwise, that the 1990 election result is not itself going to be implemented, with the installation of an NLD-led government, in any foreseeable future, and that constitutional reform is necessarily going to be a gradual process.

Secondly, benchmarks for change need to be identified, as they have been in the past, and used in a constructive way. There should be some flexibility on sanctions and agreement on their gradual withdrawal as the government makes visible progress on political and constitutional reform; and there should be benchmark-based incentives for the resumption of international lending and other economic development support measures.

Thirdly, a positive environment for change should be created by the international community supporting -- without benchmark preconditions -- conflict prevention and resolution, institution-building, planning for economic development and, above all, humanitarian aid for vulnerable groups.

But before any of this strategy can be implemented there are two preconditions that have to be met, as a matter both of principle and Western political reality: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must be completely released from any kind of custody, and serious political and constitutional dialogue must be recommenced both within and beyond the National Convention framework.

Myanmar's partners in ASEAN have a particular role and responsibility to encourage the necessary change, made more urgent by the public relations disaster they will undoubtedly suffer if no significant movement occurs before Myanmar takes the ASEAN Chair in 2006. And the UN's mediation and facilitation role continues to be crucial, whatever mix of policies the international community pursues. It would be immediately helpful for the Secretary-General to develop and propose to the Security Council a credible plan for international engagement in the roadmap process, taking into account the objectives and benchmarks proposed in this report.

Myanmar's problems cannot be solved from afar, and there is no strategy, new or old, that can solve them quickly and dramatically. However, a longer-term, comprehensive international strategy that works pro-actively with government and society not only on the immediate political issues, but also to expose the weaknesses of the current system, promote alternative policies, and strengthen domestic forces of change might just begin to make some difference while providing immediate practical help to the suffering population. Putting it into practice will require more attention, more resources, and closer cooperation and coordination among Western and Asian countries within the framework of multilateral institutions.

Yangon/Brussels, 26 April 2004

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