Western sanctions the root of all Myanmarese ills?

Updated On: Dec 18, 2007

As predicted, the Myanmar issue remains unresolved but the international community is intent on getting a breakthrough.

Already the UN has motioned that it will not be patient forever.

Last Friday (14 December), the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) decided to ask Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro to conduct a follow-up investigation on the human rights abuses inMyanmar before the Council's next session in March 2008. This comes amid an independent finding that the death toll resulting from the September democracy crackdowns is more than double that of Pinheiro’s earlier estimate of 31 deaths. Australian delegate Jill Jameson from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship told Reuters that she, two Thai and an American priest were told by a “reliable source that there were 70 people who were killed after the demonstrations”. Additionally, many monks are now missing.

To ensure that the UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari is able to continue with his work on Myanmar, including monitoring the situation in the country and continuing the negotiations with the military government, the UN approved a $865,000 budget for Gambari’s Myanmar work in 2008. However, Aung Zaw of the Irrawaddy concluded that while Gambari’s visits would focus international attention on the regime, they would not bring real progress.

On the same day, Canada beefed up its sanctions against Myanmar in a bid to push it to reform. Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier, declared, “The regime continues to show a complete disregard for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Burma. We believe that sanctions are the means by which we can best exert pressure on the military junta. With the new sanctions now in effect, we have the toughest sanctions in the world. Our sanctions show Canada's commitment to promoting freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as well as our solidarity with the Burmese people.”

Only humanitarian goods can be exported from Canada to Myanmar, Canadians are banned from investing and providing financial services, assets linked to Myanmarese junta in Canada have been frozen and Myanmarese ships and planes are not allowed to reach Canadian territory. With these strictures in place, Canada is also exhorting other countries to follow suit. Bernier announced, “Canada urges others to undertake the strongest possible measures against Burma until the Burmese authorities implement genuine reform.”

The European Union is also keen to be seen to play a role in pressuring Myanmar.  It is tightening the economic sanctions particularly on the timber, metals and gemstone sectors. The sanctions would also an investment ban on companies controlled by the regime or by people linked to it. However, it would not include the energy sector in which the French oil company, Total is heavily involved in.

The EU also announced that it will be increasing aid to Bangladesh for the relocation of thousands of Myanmar refugees of the Rohingya ethnic minority. The total disbursement of 10.5 million euros will “provide shelter, water, sanitation and access to healthcare for [10,000 Rohingya people] living near Teknaf in Bangladesh's southeastern Cox's Bazar district, which borders Myanmar”. This relocation exercise is needed as the present camps are in a deplorable condition. It is estimated that since the 1990s which saw the repatriation of some 236,000 Rohingyas back to Myanmar, there are about 28,000 refugees remaining in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government maintains a repatriation policy on the Rohingya as it views them as “illegal immigrants” and not refugees fleeing persecution.

Human trafficking is a serious problem among the Mekong countries of ChinaCambodiaMyanmarThailandVietnam and Laos. At their Second Inter-Ministerial Meeting of the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking (COMMIT) held recently, the ministers from these countries agreed to a plan of action which focuses on policymaking and capacity-building in law enforcement and criminal justice as well as protection, recovery and reintegration of victims of human trafficking.

Quite obviously the junta is unwilling to shoulder any part of the blame for any of the country’s woes. Instead it has pointed the fingers elsewhere, accusing countries which have imposed sanctions of increasing the dangers of human trafficking in the country. Myanmarese Interior Minister Major General Maung Oo, speaking on the sidelines of the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking(COMMIT) conference in Beijing, said, “Because of economic sanctions on us, some factories have had to be closed… the women who worked there are now jobless. This is one of the push factors in making them becoming trafficking victims.” At the conference, Myanmar joined its five Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) counterparts –ChinaCambodiaLaosThailand and Vietnam –to sign an agreement to tackle human trafficking.

Another worrying transnational insecurity has arisen in Myanmar, this time over avian influenza, as the country reports its first infection last month in the eastern state of Shan. Deputy Health Minister Dr. Mya Oo cautioned all government departments to be on the alert to quell a bird flu pandemic as the “mortality rate is much higher than that caused by SARS”. It is uncertain how an outbreak can be successfully contained given Myanmar’s lack of resources, effective governance and intransigent attitude to external intervention. Myanmar is already home to one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, infant mortality and maternal mortality in Asia, and even the world.

Nonetheless, despite the crushing poverty within the country, the junta is organising another jewel sale from 15 to 19 January 2008 to fill up its coffers. It is expected that while Western gem traders will avoid the sale, traders from ChinaThailand and Singapore will attend.


Myanmar stresses effective prevention of human bird flu infection (Xinhua, 16 December 2007)

EU to help Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh (AFP, 16 December 2007)

U.N. human rights body backs new probe of Myanmar (Reuters, 16 December 2007)

U.N. Human Rights Council Sending Expert to Burma on Follow-Up Mission (AHN, 16 December 2007)

Energy for Thailand, Tragedy for Burma (Asian Tribune, 15 December 2007)

Myanmar deaths higher than U.N. estimate: activists (Reuters, 14 December 2007)

Myanmar to hold gem auction in January (AFP, 14 December 2007)

Canada enforces sanctions on Myanmar (AFP, 14 December 2007)

EU warns may tighten Myanmar sanctions-draft (Reuters, 14 December 2007)

Myanmar says sanctions lead to people trafficking Reuters, 14 December 2007)

Mekong nations sign joint declaration against human trafficking (Xinhua, 14 December 2007)

Spies, suspicion and empty monasteries (The Guardian, 15 December 2007)

Special report: Inside Burma: Resource-rich but with faltering economy (The Guardian, 15 December 2007)

Burma: Rage against the machine (The Guardian, 15 December 2007)

Buddha's irresistible maroon army (The Times, 15 December 2007)

Burma must not be forgotten (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 15 December 2007)

Mekong Countries Will Join Hands To Fight Human Trafficking (China Daily, 15 December 2007)

UPDATE 1-EU warns may tighten Myanmar sanctions-draft (Reuters, 14 December 2007)

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