One of the difficulties attached to the use of economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy is knowing when they’re hurting the wrong people, or even acting as a brake on the very changes they were intended to promote.

In January, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) organised a fringe meeting in which member states issued a joint statement supporting the lifting of sanctions against one of their number: Myanmar. Myanmar, they argued, should be rewarded for recent steps taken toward openness and political reform, including the holding of elections towards the end of 2010, and the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, whom many in Myanmar regard as the country’s legitimately elected leader, though long denied office by its military regime.


Myanmar is, of course, a member of Asean, and the organisation has long been criticised for being too lenient against a country that has long been decried as a pariah state by the rest of the community. But in its defence, Asean has never set shared political objectives, and has always adopted a policy of non-interference in its member states’ internal affairs.

Convincing the West

Asean members – Myanmar's most obvious trading partners – have clear motives for seeing a ramping down of international embargoes. But it is unlikely that the outside world will respond with a great deal of urgency.

US sanctions were first imposed in 1993, and have been ratcheted several times since, but arguably contain loopholes which still allow Myanma interests to profit from exports to the US (for example, from sales of gems and timber processed in a third country).

EU sanctions ban the export of arms and matériel, and the import of gems, but are poorly enforced. Meanwhile, Canada has taken one of the most stringent positions: banning all exports to and imports from Myanmar, other than the export of humanitarian supplies, prohibiting any new investment in Myanmar by Canadian citizens, and a ban on Canadian ships docking in Myanmar (and vice versa).

Mixed opinions

Some campaigners for change in Myanmar say that the existing sanctions against the country are scattergun and largely ineffectual, but argue that recent climbdowns by the Myanma prove that the regime should be stepped up, not relaxed. However, calls from within the country itself are less clear-cut. Shortly after her release in November, Ms Suu Kyi told reporters that she would listen to the Myanma people before deciding whether to call for a lifting of embargoes.

Meanwhile, in January, a confederation of Myanma ethnic groups issued a statement in which they said the sanctions were causing “many difficulties in the areas of trade, investment and development” in the ethnic areas – which have traditionally been at loggerheads with the regime.

Most Western countries have taken issue with the notion that the November elections (overwhelmingly won by government-associated groups) were a step in the right direction. UK foreign secretary William Hague said that a sham of a democratic process “does not represent progress”, while US president Barack Obama observed that it had been “anything but free and fair”.

Meanwhile, it is the Myanma people that are hurting. Whether relaxing or increasing sanctions is the right way to ease their suffering is a very difficult call.