Paul Vallely: Sanctions helped give Burma a new start

Withholding trade does work on intransigent regimes, and now it could force President Assad to back down in Syria

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It was a smart move of David Cameron's to stand next to the woman who was until recently the world's most famous political prisoner, the heroic Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and call for international sanctions on her country to be suspended. Not lifted, but suspended – now that the military junta which had kept her under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years has finally allowed her to stand for parliament. Sanctions work only if you are prepared to suspend as well as impose them. And there can be little doubt that, despite everything the cynics say about sanctions, this is a situation in which they have undoubtedly worked.

The conventional wisdom among sceptics is that sanctions are the desperate resort of the "something-must-be done" brigade when it is too afraid to send in an army. If sanctions worked, they say, Fidel Castro would have been toppled in Cuba five decades ago. And Saddam Hussein wouldn't have still been in power 13 years after he invaded Kuwait, though there sanctions did appear to have starved the Iraqi dictator of the wherewithal to replenish his weapons of mass destruction.

It is, of course, unarguable that sanctions against Iraq were a moral disaster. Despite the imports allowed under the oil-for-food programme, sanctions killed between 670,000 and 880,000 children under the age of five who would have otherwise survived, according to figures from Yale University's Global Justice Programme. General sanctions hit the most vulnerable hardest, with business failures, unemployment, power cuts and uncontrolled inflation. By shrinking the private sector, the critics argue, the middle class is weakened and the power of the regime increased. Worse still, they are ineffective for, as in Sudan, Western disinvestment merely opens up opportunities for others, like the Chinese, though no one ever said that sanctions are supposed to enrich those who impose them.

But sanctions, when they do work, are never the singular factor in producing the desired outcome. They worked, most famously, to bring down the apartheid system in South Africa not simply through their economic effect but by creating a sense of isolation, and a crisis of legitimacy, among the sports-mad ruling white minority. They worked in white Rhodesia because, at the same time, the black majority was waging an internal guerrilla war. They worked together with external military intervention against Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia. They worked against Libya with the stick of a bombing raid on Tripoli and the carrot of behind-the-scenes co-operation with Western intelligence services.

Academic studies of the 185 occasions on which sanctions have been imposed since the Second World War suggest a success rate of one in three. Critics count that as failure. But how do you measure success when you are dealing with nasty regimes for whom words mean nought and yet military might is not always apt? If a footballer scores a goal every three matches that is a pretty good strike rate.

Two decades of sanctions on Burma have regularly been derided as ineffective. US and Europe banned new investment in the country's natural gas, timber, jade and rubies. But China, India, Thailand and Singapore were ready to do lucrative deals with its military. Yet the sanctions were sufficient for the generals gradually to realise that the World Bank had been right in 1999 when it said that Burma's poverty and development problems could never be tackled without fundamental reform to the regime's political and economic policies. Without change, prosperity would elude Burma.

The military came to see, in David Cameron's words, that "when you look at Burma's neighbours you can see economies that are growing more quickly, poverty that is being tackled more effectively" where democracy goes "hand in hand with greater economic success and growth." Indonesia offers a clear example of how the military can hand over power without sacrificing its economic interests.

Smart sanctions, targeted on the ruling elite rather than the country as a whole, have played their part in that. Travel bans on senior military figures, freezes on their overseas assets and the selective ban of key imports have hit the Burmese generals much as they did the key 600 business supporters of Slobodan Milosevic or the government of North Korea when it was denied the foreign currency to buy the Swiss watches, cognac and other luxuries which purchase the loyalty of that country's elite.

Far from stiffening the resolve of Burma's generals, sanctions finally forced the regime to release many political prisoners, request international observers for parliamentary elections and allow Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters to stand, and win, almost all the seats being contested. It now appears that the generals genuinely want to embrace a greater pluralism because the old ways were frustrating efforts at economic and financial improvement.

There are lessons for the West in all this. They are that tougher sanctions aimed at getting Iran to halt its uranium enrichment programme will probably not work – for they are not targeted against the elite but against a programme which many Iranians see as a symbol of national pride. Sanctions there could provoke a nationalist backlash. Washington and its allies need to find softer ways to modify the Iranian people's attitude so that they themselves can change that policy or the politicians pushing it.

But Syria is a different matter. The regime there exports about 150,000 barrels a day of a sour crude oil which contains high amounts of sulphur that only European refineries have the capability to handle. China could not refine it. Tighter EU sanctions on that would choke off the $7m a day with which President Assad buys the bullets to kill his own citizens. Of that a "mystery 5 per cent" is routinely siphoned off by cronies of the regime.

The Syrian business class continues to be vocal in its backing of Assad. Yet banks in Lebanon report a large increase in dollar deposits. The Assad-supporting Syrian elite is voting with its assets. In apartheid South Africa, sanctions worked because they hurt the strong Afrikaner business community. It, in turn, put pressure on its white leader F W de Klerk to negotiate with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela.

Something similar could happen in Syria. Tightening EU oil sanctions could accelerate this loss of business confidence in Assad, cause a run on the Syrian pound and leave him without the funds to pay his repressive forces. Stronger sanctions, combined with the scale of the internal insurrection, could here again prove decisive. Sanctions can work, for those leaders who know when they should be tightened and also when they must best be loosened.

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