Mark Farmaner: Sanctions could make a difference

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The Independent Online

The new wave of protests engulfing Burma has echoes of the democracy uprising in 1988 and the student-led protests in 1996, which were brutally suppressed. Sadly, the response from the international community has also been muted. Expressions of concern but no practical action.

There is a myth that the regime in Burma is immune to international pressure, that sanctions and political engagement have failed. This is far from the truth. The regime depends on international trade and investment to fund the half million-strong army that keeps it in power. Only one country, the US, has trade sanctions against Burma. Billions of dollars have been invested in Burma since 1988, but ordinary people are sinking deeper into poverty.

Nor has there been concerted political pressure. The UN Security Council discussed Burma for the first time only in 2005. There is not even a UN arms embargo against Burma, despite a UN report last year accusing the regime of breaking the Geneva Convention by targeting civilians in eastern Burma, where, on average, one village a week has been destroyed for the past 10 years.

World leaders face a stark choice: carry on as usual, or finally take the practical action that people such as Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's democracy movement, whom they profess to admire, has been asking for for so long.

The UN Security Council should take the lead, but the European Union and individual governments must also act. A recent call by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, for Security Council and EU discussions on Burma is very welcome, but must be followed by practical steps. We saw how Mr Brown persuaded the international community to cancel Third World debt through unilateral action and also engaging multilateral organisations. He must do the same on Burma.

To begin with, a deadline must be set for the release of all political prisoners, after which, if no progress has been made, a series of economic sanctions will be introduced, such as an investment ban and imports of commodities that earn the regime significant revenue, such as timber and gems. Mr Brown must also raise Burma with his counterparts in Asia.

There is no single magic bullet that will bring down the regime in Burma, but we have an obligation to use every tool at our disposal to help the Burmese. So far, we have let them down badly.

Mark Farmaner is the acting director of Burma Campaign UK

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