Myanmar: Myanmar Resists Sanctions And Suu Kyi Remains Out Of The Frame


Robert Taylor

Senior American and European leaders concerned with Asia will privately concede that the regime of sanctions, which they have been applying with increasing pressure on Myanmar for more than a decade, has not worked. Whereas in the past these same policy makers argued that perhaps one more turn of the screw would bring the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to its knees, there is now a realisation that they are in effect powerless to change the political situation in Myanmar and force the regime to include the West's democracy icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in their plans to develop a new constitutional regime in time for Myanmar's assumption of the Chair of ASEAN in 2006. Indeed, one might argue that the intensity of the sanctions regime, which the SPDC see as created at her behest, is one of the reasons they cannot do a deal with her.

Though well down on lists of international priorities, the frustration in Western capitals over Myanmar has resulted in two different reactions. The United States and the hawks on Myanmar in the European Union, including one of the EU 'foreign ministers', Chris Patten, and the British government, wish to put pressure on Myanmar's Asian neighbours to force the regime to include Suu Kyi in the current constitution-drafting phase of the SPDC's democracy 'road map'. The more open ASEAN governments, such as Indonesia (in the context of presidential elections), the Philippines and Malaysia, are somewhat susceptible to such arguments.

But those ASEAN members who see themselves next on the list of potential targets for Western-led human rights campaigns in Asian states, such as Vietnam and Laos, argue for the necessity to resist these pressures and maintain solidarity with Yangon. The 1 July Jakarata ASEAN Foreign Ministers meetings with the group's dialogue partners was the most recent example of this. Myanmar's biggest backers, China and India, have remained reticent to be seen as joining in any attempt to pressure Yangon; and Myanmar Foreign Minister Win Aung's celebration of the fiftieth anniversary in June of the Myanmar, Chinese and Indian agreements on the 'Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence' was designed to remind them of Myanmar's long relationship with them outside of Cold War and post-Cold War entanglements.

The second reaction has been to test the solidity of support by EU member states of the Union's 'common position' on Myanmar. Several of the major members are increasingly of the belief that the sanctions regime is not only ineffectual but also counterproductive and they are arguing in private for greater engagement with the regime. Moreover, the ten new member states feel that their desire to develop relations with the dynamic economies of South East Asia is being thwarted by the refusal of ASEAN to contemplate their joining the Asia-Europe summit in Hanoi in October unless Myanmar is also allowed to attend. A public row over the issue has been avoided but pressure within the EU to change tack on Myanmar is growing.

There is no possibility of the United States adopting a more flexible policy on Myanmar in advance of the November presidential elections and even after that the opposition to change in the Congress will inhibit those who believe that the sanctions regime is harming America's long-term interests in China and South East Asia. This probably assures that the pressures for change on Myanmar policy in Europe will be thwarted for a few more years. The Myanmar stalemate looks set to continue with the only winners being the generals in Yangon and Myanmar's neighbours as the regime becomes ever more dependent upon the continuing support of its neighbours, especially China.

WATCHPOINT: Will ASEAN and the EU find a compromise to save the October ASEM summit in Hanoi? Will Aung San Suu Kyi be released from house arrest following the termination of the national convention and prior to October?


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