Sanctions — Part 1 — They don’t work, so why do they continue?

Broad economic sanctions don’t work.  Other than South Africa, I can’t think of one country where broad economic sanctions have brought about desired change.  If you know of one, please let me know.  What is not debatable is that sanctions against Burma have not brought about any positive result.  While we could debate whether sanctions in Burma could ever work, it is clear that as long as India, China, Thailand, South Korea, and others continue to trade freely with Myanmar, broad sanctions will be completely ineffectual.  So, why do sanctions continue?  I have some theories.

First, we westerners like to sleep well when we go to bed at night.  This simple fact often governs public support for international aid policy.   We say, “Well, the generals continue to get rich by exploiting natural resources at the expense of their people, but hey, we’ve got nothing to do with that because we have sanctions.”  So, we can sleep at night with the calm knowledge that our fingers are not on the exploitation.  And, for those that are so incredibly sad for the people of Burma, they can cheer that they have sent away the big bad Western corporations that have been exploiting the Burmese people.  Even in the face of clear evidence that sanctions are ineffectual, they can claim that they tried to “do something.”  They’re activists, after all.  Now they’ve done something about Burma.  Off to help the poor Africans….

Second, sanctions against a brutal dictatorial regime makes nice political optics with no downside risk.  Politicians can stand up and make nice speeches about the horrors of the junta, and say they are doing their part – something they can’t do with, say, China, because of the economic leverage the Chinese have.  We all clap at how wonderful our government is for “doing something” about Burma.  They can pose for pictures with exile leaders and talk about how tough they are on “rogue nations” without taking any real action that might actually require difficult political choices with some potential negative repercussions.

Finally, and I realize the need to tread gently here, politicians tend to take policy direction much more from the exile community than they do from people on the ground in Burma and the exile community has been one of the loudest voices in favor of sanctions.  While I have no doubt that many, if not most, exile leaders truly have the best interest of the Myanmar people at heart, they are merely one interest group in the struggle, with all the biases that come with that status.  Exile leaders have often been removed from the situation on the ground for many years and may not have the best perspective on the optimal way to proceed.  Moreover, even sub-consciously, these people have an interest in maintaining their current leadership roles and positions of importance.  A change in western policy may shift leadership to those on the ground and begin to marginalize those who were forced to leave the county.  While this does not in any way lessen the sacrifices many of these people have made to the cause of Burmese freedom, their opinions must be seen as only one perspective, and not as gospel.

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