Originally Published 2010-11-20 00:00:00 Published on Nov 20, 2010
The imposition of sanctions was intended to effect political change inside Myanmar, albeit unsuccessful, in the first place. And because the issue is how best to encourage change, perhaps, it is the right time to lift sanctions as incentive for change.
Myanmar: Right time to lift sanctions?
Even as world leaders welcomed the release of Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, a debate is emerging on how the international community should now approach Myanmar. The country has just conducted a national election in which the junta-backed Union Development and Solidarity Party has won, though other smaller parties, particularly ethnic-based parties, have found some political space for the first time. These developments are taking place at a time when tension between the ethnic-armed groups and the government has heightened in the recent past.

Myanmar is at a critical juncture with the prospect of either moving forward or remained stuck in the past. The country’s political direction will be determined by factors integral to Myanmar’s internal political dynamics, but the role played by the international community could be crucial in shaping that direction.

Suu Kyi’s statements on several issues after her release were conciliatory in nature - whether on the sanctions regime, or on the question of ethnic nationalities, as also her interest for "direct" talk with Gen. Than Shwe - signaling her willingness to find resolutions to the long-standing political issues of the country. How they will be achieved remain to be spelled out. The policy and strategies that will emerge in the coming days will provide some hints on how she wants to conduct her role in the new political landscape.

On the other hand, the junta has so far remained silent on Suu Kyi’s remarks. There is no indication yet that the junta would respond positively to the issues raised by Suu Kyi, though it has allowed huge gathering of people during Suu Kyi’s public speech a day after her release. For the junta, the recently concluded national election was a key step to political reforms.

Much of Suu Kyi’s political activities in the short-term will revolve around issues related to the elections - whether on the issue of the disbandment of her party (the National League for Democracy) or the issue of alleged rigging of the elections results - and this will put her in direct confrontation with the junta. Unless some meeting grounds are found on these issues, it is difficult to imagine how Suu Kyi’s talks with the junta will make any productive results on other more complex issues such as national reconciliation and ethnic nationalities.

Suu Kyi has called for "a peaceful non-violent revolution" to achieve democratic change in Myanmar. Could this mean she is ready to work within the new political framework envisaged under the new constitution? How is she going to position herself on the tension between the ethnic armed groups and the government that has the potential of triggering huge violent conflict? These unanswered questions should be cause for concern because they are perfect recipe for political instability.

As for the Western countries, shouldn’t the US and its allies now ease the pressure on Myanmar by lifting sanctions? Washington may wait for Suu Kyi’s policy decision on the issue. But lifting sanctions at this stage could be a critical step that may have a positive impact on the internal politics of Myanmar and also, perhaps, narrow the gap on Myanmar between the regional players and the Western countries.

Internally, it will surely open up an area for Suu Kyi and the junta to "work together" which could be used to build trust that would be needed to pave the way in resolving other issues. The divide among the international community on the Myanmar issue has been a major reason for the failure to push for reforms in the country for years.

There is increasing recognition among the international community that change in Myanmar will be determined by the internal dynamics of the country and that the sanctions regime as a tool to effect change has not achieved desired results. The current situation provides an opportunity to bridge the international divide which, in turn, may be channelised for positive effects inside Myanmar.

The imposition of sanctions was intended to effect political change inside Myanmar, albeit unsuccessful, in the first place. And because the issue is how best to encourage change inside Myanmar, perhaps, it is the right time to lift sanctions as incentive for change.

(K. Yhome is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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K. Yhome

K. Yhome

K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...

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