Adrian Hamilton: Sanctions aren't going to bust Burma

Politicians like them because they make you look as if you’re ‘doing something’
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Gordon Brown says that he is "saddened and angry" at the Burmese court's decision to keep Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for a further 18 months.

The "saddened" part I can understand. Indeed it chimes in with the reaction in Asia, with spokesmen for both Malaysia and Indonesia declaring themselves "very disappointed" with a judgement that was hardly surprising (indeed some had feared worse) but was nonethless deeply distressing to anyone who hoped that the Burmese generals might be moving to a more conciliatory stance on the leader of the opposition.

But "anger"? It's such a pointless emotion for a British Prime Minister to express, and irrelevant. The idea that the Burmese government is remotely impressed by emotional outbursts from abroad is simply ridiculous. They've never shown any real sensitivity, let alone responsiveness, to the criticism of their internal rule even from their neighbours, let alone from a European country that can easily be painted as an ex-colonialist still trying to meddle in their own affairs.

And where does it lead you? President Sarkozy of France, always trigger-happy on these occasions, has called on the EU "to respond quickly by adopting new sanctions against the Burmese regime," a cry backed by the UK foreign minister, Ivan Lewis, who said Britain would "move quickly to secure further EU sanctions targeting the regime's economic interest".

But then we said all that only two years ago when the Burmese authorities suppressed the riots of the monks in the country with maximum force and we tried it even before that when Aung San Suu Kyi was first put under house arrest in 1989 and then again when she was re-arrested in 2000 and again in 2003 and when her detention was prolonged by a year in 2007 and 2008.

And what have all these expressions of international outrage, the sanctions and the visits of successive UN Secretary generals achieved? Precisely nothing. In the hard politics of power, and their desire to retain it, the Burmese generals have taken the view that the penalties of international disfavour are far outweighed by the threat of the release of a political figure too well known to be "disappeared" but too dangerous to be let loose in even the most controlled of elections.

That is partly a comment on the futility of sanctions as a means of pressuring internal change by authoritarian regimes. Western politicians such as Brown and Sarkozy love them because they make it sound as if you're doing something to respond to the public clamour for action. At the moment we're employing them against Iran, the Sudan, North Korea and Zimbabwe, to name the most obvious subjects of western ire.

Yet you would be hard put to find any evidence that they've done anything to change policy in those countries. If anything you could argue that they've actually retrenched repressive regimes by enabling them to tighten control of import revenues and present themselves to their people as victims of international aggression. The effect of sanctions on Iraq in the decade up to the invasion was to kill tens of thousands of children for lack of medicine and food. The effect of the current sanctions on Iran has been to increase the accident rate on civil aircraft deprived of spare parts.

This is not to deny the value – or the need – for gestures of international disapproval of the domestic actions of other governments. At the very least restrictions on travel and the movement of funds to the West by foreign leaders serves as symbolic display of distaste. It is frankly offensive to see so many ministers from corrupt and oppressive regimes cavorting round Europe, and America, spending the money squeezed out of their own populations. It is only fair and within their rights for the rest of the world to deny their custom.

If we want to do more than that and influence behaviour, however, then we have to accept our limitations and work with the organisations and countries which do hold some sway with the government concerned. You shouldn't expect too much from this. It's all very well asking South Africa to force President Mugabe to change course or China or India to tell Burma to release its prisoners. And Peking, New Delhi and Pretoria may be prepared to put some discreet pressure to that effect. But in the end they are not going to sacrifice their own economic and regional interests, not at our behest.

And that goes for the offending countries. Authoritarian regimes don't change the colour of their skin, not unless it is in their interests to do so. Nor do they act tyrannically out of mere brutishness. If they see their way to survival through locking up the opposition and silencing their critics, they will do so, whatever we may say or do. For some, including perhaps those in Burma and Zimbabwe, there never will be the prospect of real reform until the regime itself crumbles from the pressure from within, just as it did in Eastern Europe 20 years ago.

But then neither are these regimes, or their neighbours, entirely insensitive to how they appear outside. If the court in Rangoon kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, it didn't enforce a sentence of hard labour on her – not out of the goodness of its heart but for fear of the response within and without the country.

In the same way China and India, whilst reluctant to exert public pressure on Burma, are not unaware of the perils of having an unpopular and isolated regime by their side. It is possible for these countries to act in unison with the regional organisations concerned, especially Asean as the OAU in Africa and to offer through them the carrot of economic incentive and the stick of exclusion in a way that bilateral relationships can't easily manage.

For it is in the positive, the offer of benefit, rather than the negative of punitive measures that the best hopes of effecting change from the outside lie. And it is why total isolation, the withdrawal of representation and the stopping of trade, present the worst of options, however comforting they may be to western politicians wanting to cut a dash with their own publics. Speak up for what you believe by all means but don't stop talking.