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Debate: Lifting sanctions on Myanmar

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Should international sanctions against Myanmar (Burma) be lifted?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Jern-Fei Ng. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

Ever since the military coup in 1988, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has been governed by the military junta which is known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Despite the fact that the elections that were held in 1990 were clearly won by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the SPDC has refused to hand over power to it. As a matter of fact, the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi is constantly restricted from travelling around the country to meet up with her supporters and was until recently placed under house arrest for years. Both Western and Asian nations have expressed concern over the state of the country, but the burning question remains as to what the international community should do in order to ensure that Myanmar becomes a fully-fledged democracy. Some, like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) argues that any interference in domestic Myanmar politics would be undesirable and unjustified, whilst others hold strongly to the belief that continuous trade with Myanmar will eventually open it up to the reforms, as has been the case with nations like South Korea and Taiwan. Yet others take a harsher stance and advocate the continued imposition of sanctions as the only workable means to nudge Myanmar towards democratic reforms. Should sanctions on Myanmar remain in place or should a policy of constructive engagement be pursued instead?

Argument #1


The imposition of EU and US sanctions on Myanmar thus far have proven to be largely unsuccessful, given that the country mainly trades with other ASEAN Member States, China and Japan. Sanctions are clearly an ineffective tool of foreign policy in the Myanmarese context and hence should be discontinued. Instead, the West can coax Myanmar to change more effectively through the negotiation table.


The imposition of sanctions has effectively limited the extent that the West trades with Myanmar – this proves that sanctions are working. From a practical point of view, sanctions can be effective as was the case in Haiti and apartheid South Africa. Further, sanctions can be justified in principle as the West has a moral obligation to express its disapproval of the current situation in Myanmar in the strongest terms possible; the best way of doing this is through the imposition of sanctions.

Argument #2


There is no denying that the present regime’s disrespect for democracy and human rights is very concerning. However, the imposition of sanctions is likely to drive Myanmar into isolating itself from the West, thereby causing it to behave even more belligerently. Alternatively, by constructively engaging Myanmar and trading with it, the West has more leverage in enocuraging it to reform. The steady economic development that is derived from increased trade with the regime will eventually lead to political reforms, This happened in other countries like Taiwan and South Korea.


Attempts have been made in the past to negotiate with the SPDC in the hope that change could be expedited. Such efforts have proved to be of no avail and there is no reason to believe that it will do so now. Increased trade with Myanmar is unlikely to lead to political reforms in the country. Most businesses in Myanmar are controlled by the ruling military junta. The likelihood will be that revenue from the increased trade will be siphoned off by the SPDC for its own purposes. Hence there is reason to believe that the wealth created by the boost in trade will not "trickle" down to the ordinary people.

Argument #3


Sanctions will only serve to insulate the SPDC in power. This is due to the fact that sanctions hurt ordinary Myanmarese. The SPDC’s grip on the national media means that it is able to disseminate propaganda which demonizes the West as the enemy of the Myanmarese, and the military junta as their hero; willing to stand up to the Western powers. The lifting of sanctions will ensure that ordinary Myanmarese citizens are exposed to Western technology, labour practices and political ideologies which in turn will equip them with the belief and self-determination necessary to engineer change in their own country.


It is naive to suggest that the Myanmarese people accept the government’s propaganda without questioning. After all, many are still reeling from the tragedy that befell them in 1990 when the results of democratic elections were annulled and scores of opposition party supporters were arrested and imprisoned without trial. The popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD remain high. The lifting of sanctions would be viewed as a betrayal by the Myanmarese and would reverse any progress that sanctions have helped to achieve.

Argument #4


Apart from concerns over the lack of democracy and the lack of respect for human rights in Myanmar, another extremely worrying problem is that of South East Asian regional security. In recent years, China has increased its stakes in the region and has been embroiled in various territorial and military disputes in South East Asia, including the dispute over the Spratly Islands. It is no secret that China views Myanmar as a potential base from which it will be able to increase its influence in the region. As such, by isolating Myanmar, the West effectively eliminates any influence it may have over Myanmar which in turn retards the creation of a more favourable balance of power in South East Asia.


China has close relations with most East Asian nations. The argument that China intends to use Myanmar as its base in South East Asia is nothing more than baseless fear-mongering. Security issues in South East Asia which involve China are usually resolved through the negotiation rather than through aggression. Myanmar has good ties not only with China, but with other ASEAN Member States as well, who would be opposed to perceived Chinese interference in South East Asian affairs anyway.

Argument #5


The West suffers from an image problem in South East Asia whereby Western nations, especially the US is accused of practising double standards in the implementation of its foreign policy in Asia as a whole. Myanmar appears to be sanctioned for the same reasons that China, for instance, is not. US Vice-President Al Gore’s oft-repeated mantra that the US is the world’s policeman does not go down well with ASEAN nations in general. Their concerns are exacerbated further by their perception of the existence of such double standards.


Paradoxically, the West’s international image will indeed suffer if sanctions are lifted without there being any tangible change in Myanmar. There is a need to make a principled stand about the goings-on in the country. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi herself has supported the sanctions as it draws the attention of the world to Myanmar’s cause, besides reassuring ordinary Myanmarese people that the SPDC’s rule of Myanmar will not be legitimized by the rest of the world community.



  • This house would lift sanctions on Myanmar
  • This house supports engagement with Myanmar
  • This house believes that sanctions are an ineffective tool of foreign policy

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