Thursday, May 26, 2011

Burma Sanctions: It Takes Two to Tango

Previously I wrote that the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the institution of a purportedly elected government in Myanmar warranted a revisit of Burma sanctions imposed by the West. After its policy review, the EU did slightly modify its Burma sanctions, lifting the visa ban and asset freeze on certain civilian members of the Myanmar regime, and allowing high-level visits to Myanmar to  resume (and it appears that the EU had allowed such visits even before the revision in its Burma policy).  The United States, on the other hand, decided to maintain its Burma sanctions without revision.

In effect, the EU and the U.S. appear to be using a “good cop, bad cop” approach.  The EU has made small adjustments to its Burma sanctions, which is in line with Suu Kyi’s call to maintain sanctions but in a manner that considers the negative effects on the Burmese people (although the adjustments perhaps are only the first steps in that direction).  The U.S., on the other hand, appears to be taking a harder line than the EU.

Yet this is to be expected.  The EU always had more flexibility built into its Burma sanctions and elected to exercise that flexibility.  The U.S.-imposed Burma sanctions were legislatively imposed by Congress, with much less flexibility afforded to the Obama administration. 

In any event, it is still early going for the new regime in Myanmar, and much too early to “reward” the regime’s behavior.  The U.S. is continuing its dialogue with the Myanmar regime but without greater and deeper reforms, it will be difficult for the Obama administration to modify its Burma sanctions. The EU, with its greater flexibility, can serve as the initial interlocutor with the Myanmar regime. The EU apparently has decided to consider opinions from within and without Myanmar other than Suu Kyu’s party, and religious issues are not as important, as they would be to the U.S.

Hence the cumulative effect of this year’s EU and U.S. policy is an incremental, tentative approach towards the Myanmar regime.  This properly recognizes that the formerly rigid policy did not work.   Nevertheless, the Myanmar regime needs to reciprocate with concrete steps to improve the situation in the country and in the lives of its people.   There have been a few small steps here and there, but nothing worth rewarding with more sweeping changes to the Burma sanctions.  In short, it takes two to tango, and the Myanmar regime needs to show that it is willing to dance, not just change out of its uniform into party attire.