Burma and the case for intervention

The recent mass protests in Burma raise one of the most important questions in international affairs: when is intervention in the domestic affairs of other states justified? And if so, what form should it take? Russia and China (and more haltingly India) have taken the view that the troubles in Burma are a purely internal matter; the so-called ‘international community’ (i.e., the West) has been clamouring for stronger sanctions against the military regime, to be imposed by the United Nations.

Let’s be clear about one thing: no democracy would deny the right of concerned citizens to make their views about other countries felt, by way of speech, writing, demonstration, or by forms of voluntary boycott –for example of trade. The question is: what, if any, sanctions should states impose against states of whose internal policies they disapprove?

Burma is certainly not a savoury state. In 1990, a popular uprising forced the military to allow a democratic election, which was won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) with 82 per cent of the vote. But the military refused to give up power and the NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for over ten years. The present wave of pro-democracy demonstrations started on 18 August when the government raised the price of diesel oil by 500% in order to cover its budget deficit. The Buddhist monks, who had led the resistance to the earlier British occupation, took to the streets on 19 September The government claims that ten were killed: unofficial estimates put the death toll much higher.

The EU imposed ‘targeted sanctions on Burma in 1996, They include an arms embargo and restrictions on banking, investment and travel. Last month, the Bush Administration increased US sanctions, widening the visa ban for junta officials, and trying to impede the flow of funds through their Singapore-based bank accounts.

Under Article VII of its charter, the UN Security Council can impose both military and economic sanctions, but only in order to ‘maintain or restore international peace and security’. Burma does not sponsor terrorism or threaten its neighbours, and for this reason any move towards UN sanctions would be vetoed by Russia and China.

By contrast, the West (basically the USA and the EU) favour the use of sanctions to uphold respect for human rights, democracy, the rule of law and good government. Together with the prevention of terrorism and spread of weapons of mass destruction, these have become the main goals of EU foreign policy.

No one is suggesting a military attack on Burma. This means that there are only two ways in which other countries can help bring about ‘regime-change’. The first is by cutting off Burma’s links with the outside world. The regime is put on notice that it will pay a progressively higher price for repression. The problem is that the price is usually paid by the people, not the leaders, who can use sanctions to whip up resentment against the sanctioning powers. Also, as long as sanctions are not universally applied they can be evaded.

The alternative to sanctions is engagement through commerce and quiet diplomacy. This is policy of Burma’s neighbours. Burma is a member of ASEAN. Although still very poor, its rate of economic growth since 1994 has been 8 per cent a year. There is a growing middle class. None of these things will make it a democracy in the western sense. But they will, over time, bring it closer to the south-east Asian ‘norm’ in which the military, while still powerful, is checked by elected politicians. The West will continue to voice its moral disapproval; the real work of change will be part of the silent rise of Asia.