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Don’t Isolate Myanmar

Summary:
US President Joe Biden's administration must not ignore how often American sanctions against other countries have worked to China’s advantage. In this light, the US must take a cautious and prudent approach on Myanmar. NEW DELHI – Directly or indirectly, the military has always called the shots in Myanmar. And now that it has removed the decade-old façade of gradual democratization by detaining civilian leaders and seizing power, Western calls to punish the country with sanctions and international isolation are growing louder. Heeding them would be a mistake. Multilateral Cooperation for Global Recovery Reimagining the

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US President Joe Biden's administration must not ignore how often American sanctions against other countries have worked to China’s advantage. In this light, the US must take a cautious and prudent approach on Myanmar.

NEW DELHI – Directly or indirectly, the military has always called the shots in Myanmar. And now that it has removed the decade-old façade of gradual democratization by detaining civilian leaders and seizing power, Western calls to punish the country with sanctions and international isolation are growing louder. Heeding them would be a mistake.

The retreat of the “Myanmar spring” means all the countries of continental Southeast Asia – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar – are under authoritarian rule, like their giant northern neighbor, China. More fundamentally, the reversal of democratization in Myanmar is a reminder that democracy is unlikely to take root where authoritarian leaders and institutions remain deeply entrenched.

Given this, a punitive approach would merely express democratic countries’ disappointment, at the cost of stymying Myanmar’s economic liberalization, impeding the development of its civil society, and reversing its shift toward closer engagement with democratic powers. And, as in the past, the brunt of sanctions would be borne by ordinary citizens, not the generals.

This is a realistic scenario. US President Joe Biden has warned that the military’s action “will necessitate an immediate review of our sanctions laws,” followed by “appropriate action.” But Biden would do well to consider how US-led sanctions in the past pushed Myanmar into China’s strategic lap, exacerbating regional-security challenges.

Sanctions are a blunt instrument. Thailand’s army chief, with the support of an increasingly unpopular king, has remained ensconced in power in civilian garb since staging a coup in 2014. If the United States can do business with Thailand, where a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters has extended to the use of a feared lèse-majesté law to imprison those who insult the royal family, why hold neighboring Myanmar to a higher standard?

Brahma Chellaney
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He also sits on a number of international organizational boards, including the academic council of The Henry Jackson Society, London, and the advisory board of Worldcoo, Barcelona, and is a member of the Global Strategic Advisory Group of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. He has also served as a member of the Policy Advisory Group headed by the foreign minister of India.

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