By Thaung Htun
Maintaining sanctions will not be enough to end the horror in Burma; engagement and ostracisation are both needed.
Key decisions about Burma (Myanmar) are pending. The United States has announced it is reviewing its Burma policy and at the end of April the EU will consider whether to renew its sanctions regime.
As an organisation made up of politicians democratically elected by the Burmese people in the 1990 elections, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) has backed sanctions. Yet we understand that sanctions are no easy fix. This is not a debate about sanctions alone; it is a debate about international action.
The debate so far has tended to see sanctions as a silver bullet. However, it defies logic or precedent to assume sanctions can, as a lone policy tool, generate the sort of drastic reform in Burma that is needed.
The NCGUB has supported sanctions because they have an impact on the Burmese regime and this has been admitted time and again by the generals. But it has never envisaged a system of Cuba-style blanket blocks on Burmese economic activity. Any sanctions must be targeted to maximise the impact on the junta and to minimise pressure on ordinary Burmese people.
Freezes on financial transactions for selected members of the junta are appropriate. Regulations against imports of Burmese jade, a trade closely connected to the junta, are also relevant.
But sanctions alone are unlikely to bring down a regime as power-hungry as the one in Burma.
This problem is compounded by the fact that sanctions on Burma have been regularly broken. Economic walls put up by Brussels or Washington have been overwhelmed by a flood of business, mainly from neighbouring countries. Trade's centre of gravity has merely shifted and the generals live on.
For sanctions to work, a range of additional measures need to be used to increase pressure and offer benefits.
For instance, major powers and neighbouring countries should look to address Burma's longer-term economic problems. Macro- and micro-economic reform is necessary to balance the regime's mindless evisceration of the economy and to set the groundwork for a liberal democratic future.
It is in the best interests of everyone, from major powers to neighbouring countries, to find ways to re-introduce democratic and liberal principles in Burma.
Economic measures, such as a firm and targeted sanctions regime, are a part of that agenda. But we also need incentives and, to that end, we support appropriate and sustainable engagement.
Some, including the International Crisis Group in an influential report and the analyst Fraser Cameron on European Voice's website, argue that a process of dialogue can be built on Burma's decision to open itself up to a limited degree, in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. This argument is faulty and surprisingly naive. It seems ignorant of just how unwilling the regime is to allow the international community even limited access and of how brief the apparent thaw was. Cyclone Nargis has not provided the basis for appropriate and sustainable engagement.
The type of engagement that is needed is equitable and fair-minded – and suggests the need for a carrot-and-stick approach.
Sanctions are just one of the many elements available. Over the coming months, the NCGUB will roll out a range of initiatives designed to offer assistance to Burmese inside and outside Burma. Among those will be ideas for engagement with Burmese civil society.
Our plan will put forward strategies, including transitional arrangements and long-term economic recovery programmes designed to re-build Burma's economic system.
A sanctions debate may well be one we need to have. But such a debate must be clear-headed and cognisant of the facts. The presence or absence of sanctions alone will not end Burma's decades-long descent into horror.
For that to end, there is a need for a combination of engagement and ostracisation, of policy and morality.
Thaung Htun represents the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma to the United Nations.