In The Media

Sanctions and Myanmar’s “new look” government

by Hrach Gregorian

November 9, 2012

Why, after almost 50 years of military rule, has the current Burmese (Myanmarese) strongman, Thein Sein, allowed the wedge of political and economic reform pry open his otherwise authoritarian state?

The generals who benefit from state and informal corruption, patronage, monopoly rents, and drug and human trafficking are under no immediate threat of removal. In fact, the recent end to hostilities with some of the country’s major rebel groups would appear to put the military brass even more firmly in the catbird seat.

Although western sanctions have hurt, Burma’s economic situation is by no means dire. According to a 2011 Asian Development Bank report, when compared to near neigbours, Burma actually does better across a number of basic social and economic indicators. However, its overall economic record is dismal, despite abundant natural resource wealth.

A transformation of the sort Burma has initiated springs from many sources. Prominent among these would appear to be concern about the degree of Chinese social and economic penetration. Not only China, but India and other regional powerhouses have capitalized on western sanctions to advance their economic and geostrategic interests.

For two decades, China has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure development projects while cheap Chinese consumer products have flooded Burmese markets. Wary of Chinese gains, India abandoned its western-oriented human rights stance some time ago, and with its “Look East” policy built bridges to the military government. Current bilateral trade stands at over one billion, about one fourth of the figure for trade between Burma and China.

In both cases, the balance of trade heavily favours Burma’s more powerful partners. Japan recently stepped in with the promise of loans for a floundering project initiated in 2010 by Thailand’s largest construction conglomerate, Italian-Thai Development, to build a deep-sea port and Special Economic Zone in eastern Burma that, when completed, will be Southeast Asia’s largest industrial development complex.

By no means should the Burmese be cast as passive victims in the unfolding drama. In fact, the generals have proved rather adept at manipulating outsiders. They are also keenly aware of antipathy among significant sectors of Burmese society to severe environmental and social dislocations caused by large, foreign-initiated infrastructure projects.

The most visible manifestation of local disaffection was the recent suspension by the Sein government of the $3.6 billion Chinese-led Myitsone dam project in northern Burma. Had the project gone forward, it would have resulted in the flooding of 766 kilometers of land and displaced 10,000 Kachin people in Kachin State.

Although 90 per cent of the power generated by the dam would have gone to China for a period of 50 years, the terms of the deal as a whole were not unfavorable to Burmese interests. The project simply increased popular resentment to a boiling point over perceived wanton treatment of local interests by external actors, including officials in Naypyidaw. A positive government response was unprecedented, and likely marked a critical turning point in the complex balancing act that has been the regime’s M.O.

A carefully orchestrated policy of political liberalization has led to rising economic engagement in Burma by Europe and North America. Sein has been wise to assume a low-key public posture in the process, allowing Burma’s most eloquent voice, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to carry the message of democratization to previously hostile capitals. With adoring publics now primed for change, western sanctions have been dropping like leaves in late autumn.

So barring any backsliding, Burma is well on her way to joining a much larger community of nations, a transformation that will see her enjoy both dramatic economic growth and less reliance on regional hegemons. The law of unintended consequences appears to have produced the following sequence of events, if in a less linear fashion than described here.

Roughly two decades of western sanctions failed to advance human rights and democratization in Burma while facilitating economic penetration by neigbours such as China. Growing distrust of Chinese (and to a lesser extent, Indian) designs on Myanmar led the generals some time ago to think about using the U.S. to balance a skewed power equation.

This approach required opening the political system. Perhaps sanctions initiated all that has transpired since, although one would be hard pressed to argue there was any anticipation of the chain of events that followed adoption of restrictive measures.

Hrach Gregorian is a Research Fellow with the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, and President of the Institute of World Affairs (IWA) a non-governmental organization specializing in international conflict management and post-conflict peacebuilding. He is Associate Professor, Graduate Program in Conflict Management, Royal Roads University; Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, and Co-director, Peacebuilding, Development and Security Program (PDSP), Centre for Military and Security Studies (CMSS), University of Calgary; Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria, and Associate Editor, Politics & Policies.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

No events are scheduled at this time.


Global Times: BRICS summit displays the potential of a new future

by Editorial Staff (feat. Swaran Singh), WSFA 12, June 24, 2022

Oil's Dive Won't Bring Any Immediate Relief on Inflation

by Alex Longley, Elizabeth low, and Barbara Powell (feat. Amrita Sen), BNNBloomberg, June 24, 2022

China To Tout Its Governance Model At BRICS Summit

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), The Asean Post, June 23, 2022

Soutien aux victimes d’inconduites sexuelles dans l’armée

by Rude Dejardins (feat. Charlotte Duval-Lantoine), ICI Radio Canada, June 23, 2022

Defence: $4.9 billion for radars against Russian bombs

by Editorial Staff (feat. Rob Huebert), Archynews, June 23, 2022

The Hans Island “Peace” Agreement between Canada, Denmark, and Greenland

by Elin Hofverberg (feat. Natalie Loukavecha), Library of Congress, June 22, 2022

What the future holds for western Canadian oil producers

by Gabriel Friedman (feat. Kevin Birn), Beaumont News, June 22, 2022

At BRICS summit, China sets stage to tout its governance model

by Liam Gibson (feat. Stephen Nagy), Aljazeera, June 22, 2022

Crude oil price: there are no changes to the fundamentals

by Faith Maina (feat. Amrita Sen), Invezz, June 22, 2022

Few details as Liberals promise billions to upgrade North American defences

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. Andrea Charron), National Newswatch, June 20, 2022

Defence Minister Anita Anand to make announcement on continental defence

by Steven Chase (feat. Rob Huebert), The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2022

Table pancanadienne des politiques

by Alain Gravel (feat. Jean-Christophe Boucher), ICI Radio Canada, June 18, 2022

Russia Ukraine conflict

by Gloria Macarenko (feat. Colin Robertson), CBC Radio One, June 17, 2022

New privacy Bill to introduce rules for personal data, AI use

by Shaye Ganam (feat. Tom Keenan), 680 CHED, June 17, 2022


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 1800, 150–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3H9


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


© 2002-2022 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email