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WHY SANCTIONS WILL NOT FIX BURMA

The Financial Times - October 2, 2007 by Gideon Rachman On my first visit to Burma in the early 1990s, I met an elderly man who had fought with the British in the second world war – and who rolled up his sleeve to show the scars left by a Japanese machine gun. The old man was scathing in his contempt for his country’s military government. But when I asked him if he wanted tougher sanctions against Burma, he looked alarmed: “No,” he protested, “we are far too isolated already.” Fifteen years have passed since then and the military junta is still in charge – and once again has resorted to murderous repression in the streets. The western world is aghast. At a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last week, Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, got a wry laugh when he announced that something must be done, but he had no idea what that something might be. Under such circumstances, “something” usually turns out to be economic and political sanctions. Pushing through new sanctions would be an understandable reaction to the horrifying sight of the Burmese military massacring its own people. But sanctions would probably achieve nothing in the short term – and be actively damaging in the long term. Ruthless regimes that feel their survival is at stake are pretty adept at deflecting the pain of sanctions on to their own people – just think of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Sanctions are also a particularly bad strategy for Burma. As the veteran I met suggested, the tragedy of modern Burma has been its isolation. Autarky was the policy chosen by Gen Ne Win when he seized power in 1962. Under Ne Win, foreign investment and tourists were banned. The generals who now run Burma are Ne Win’s heirs. International isolation holds few terrors for them. By contrast, ordinary Burmese are sometimes touchingly desperate for contact with foreigners. They are also often clearly terrified of the consequences of unauthorised conversations. This really is a state based on terror. The natural instinct of outsiders is to take their lead from Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned leader of the democratic opposition. She is a Nobel laureate, she leads the party that won the last free elections in 1990 and she has sacrificed her freedom for her country. Her moral authority is impossible to challenge. So, when she calls for sanctions and the international isolation of the military government, it is hard to do anything other than agree. This is all the more true?since?the?advocates of engagement – with the Chinese government and western oil companies to the fore – are clearly more interested in Burma’s natural resources than in its human rights record. There is certainly more that could be done on the sanctions front. While the US had already enacted comprehensive bans on trade and investment – even before the latest targeted sanctions – the European Union’s efforts have been comparatively weak. Meanwhile China has traded eagerly with Burma. And the Association of South East Asian Nations admitted the country to its ranks in 1997, despite its appalling human rights record. But, in recent years, even people whose top priority is political change in Burma have begun to rethink the western policy of isolating the country. Prominent among them is Thant Myint-U, a Burmese academic who works for the United Nations – and who is the grandson of U Thant, the former secretary-general of the UN. Mr Thant Myint-U is a longstanding opponent of the regime. But he has come to believe that the “sanctions argument is deeply flawed”. In a recent book (The River of Lost Footsteps, Faber) and in an article in the London Review of Books, Mr Thant Myint-U gives three reasons for doubting the efficacy of sanctions on Burma. First: “Many in the military don’t care . . . if the choice is between political suicide and interacting with an outside world they fundamentally distrust, then there is no debate. Isolation is their default condition.” Second: “Sanctions really only mean western sanctions”. That means that the regime can still trade, and is forced further into the arms of China. Finally, even if comprehensive international sanctions were possible, “there is a very good chance that the army leadership would stay in their Führerbunker until the bitter end, as the country collapsed into anarchy around them”. The risk of anarchy cannot be dismissed. Burma has a long history of ethnic insurgencies as well as powerful, drug-funded local militias. The bitter experience of Iraq is a warning of what can happen when a centralised dictatorship is suddenly displaced by outside pressure in an ethnically divided country. Mr Thant Myint-U acknowledges that sanctions targeted specifically at the Burmese leadership – of the sort just announced by the US – could be helpful as part of a concerted diplomatic effort. But, if the regime survives the current turmoil, he thinks that further isolation of the country would be counterproductive. His preference would be for more foreign aid and “serious diplomacy that includes both the Burmese government and its neighbours”. It is very hard to make the argument for engagement with Burma now, with blood being shed on the streets. The Americans and Europeans clearly feel the need for some sort of symbolic act of repudiation of the Burmese government. That is understandable as an emotional reaction. But do not confuse sanctions with a real strategy to bring change and democracy to Burma. Photo (c) AP





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