EU sanctions would help to bring democracy to Burma

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"Sanctions now" is all too often the liberal knee-jerk response to the brutal oppressions of dictatorial regimes. There is, in fact, much to be said for the opposite approach of constructive engagement with governments that abuse human rights. That approach is broadly right in relation to China, where in the long run the best prospect of the spread of liberal democratic ideas is by opening up trade. This newspaper has also argued, against Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and his junior minister Peter Hain, for the lifting of sanctions on Iraq, in the belief that they strengthen rather than weaken Saddam Hussein.

"Sanctions now" is all too often the liberal knee-jerk response to the brutal oppressions of dictatorial regimes. There is, in fact, much to be said for the opposite approach of constructive engagement with governments that abuse human rights. That approach is broadly right in relation to China, where in the long run the best prospect of the spread of liberal democratic ideas is by opening up trade. This newspaper has also argued, against Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and his junior minister Peter Hain, for the lifting of sanctions on Iraq, in the belief that they strengthen rather than weaken Saddam Hussein.

It is not, therefore, simply gesture politics to argue for the imposition of sanctions on Burma. This is a case where forceful economic action holds out the promise of advancing the cause of human rights. Yesterday, the leaders of the European Union used strong words to condemn the Burmese government's intimidation of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi - who was finally forced to return to her home by 200 riot police after being trapped in her car for nine days as she attempted to visit her supporters.

But words are not enough, and Mr Cook has been trying to persuade his EU colleagues to take up Ms Suu Kyi's call for sanctions. Burma has been a military dictatorship for 38 years, and the policy of constructive engagement has not worked. Ms Suu Kyi won a landslide election 10 years ago, and yet continued foreign trade has not persuaded the junta to relinquish power. The military chiefs have been shaken by internal protests, international campaigns and official expressions of disapproval, but they will not yield unless the democracy movement is given more concrete external support. So far the only action the EU has taken has been to refuse to meet Burmese government representatives.

This could be the right time to apply pressure, as there is some evidence that the regime is divided within itself, with the junta's leader, Than Shwe, reported to be ill and a struggle possibly developing for the succession.

The EU should impose trade sanctions on Burma now. The British government has resisted going it alone, on the grounds that preventing British companies alone from trading in Burma could fall foul of EU competition law - a position that has left it little to fall back on but exhortation. If EU law has that effect, it should be tested, challenged and reversed: member states must be allowed to pursue ethical foreign policies of their own. Meanwhile, Mr Cook must continue to work collectively in the EU and at the United Nations for the widest possible support in helping Ms Suu Kyi to bring democracy to the people of Burma.

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