Tom Malinowski, Washington Director

Experts debate whether the role of sanctions was successful in opening up Burma. But with the up-coming by-elections and the release of political prisoners, the greater challenge may be how to lift them.

An hour after landing in Burma this January, I sat on the floor of
a tiny bamboo house in a suburb of Rangoon, sharing lunch with a half dozen
women who had just walked out of prison following an amnesty
of political prisoners. There was much I
wanted to ask them: about their treatment
(it got better over time, thanks, they all insisted, to international
pressure), about their plans (get a good night's sleep, and then right back to
political work), and their fears (chiefly, that with dissidents streaming out
of prisons and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi heading into parliament, the
West would declare Burma a success and move on). But there was one question to which I kept coming
back: "Why are you free?"

I posed a variation of that question to everyone I met in Burma --
dissidents, government officials, journalists and academics. Why is the Burmese government promising now
rights and freedoms that, for decades, it sent people to prison for demanding? Why is it so eager now to draw Aung San Suu
Kyi into the country's political life, after so many years of trying to blot
her out? Not everyone agreed on the
precise reasons. But there was a common
theme to their answers: After years of
serving a military that was shunned, hated, or ridiculed for running Burma into
the ground, "they" -- Burma's president, Thein Sein, and those behind him -- want
"legitimacy and respect." They want to
be on better terms with their people, and for Burma to be on better terms with
the world.

It is plain that the Burmese people deserve most of the credit for
their rulers' change of heart. For
years, they faced unrelenting brutality from above, yet sustained a political
movement dedicated to non-violence and national reconciliation. Time and again,
they organized themselves in sophisticated and principled ways, not just to
demand political freedom, but to respond to natural disasters, to deliver to
themselves the basic services their government neglected, and to remain connected
to the outside world. In Aung San Suu
Kyi, they also had something that dissident movements in most dictatorships
lack -- a leader clearly capable of unifying their country and leading its government. The military may have held all the power in Burma. But she and her movement held all the
legitimacy.

Even in the years when Burma's democracy movement seemed silenced
and defeated, pressure from below manifested itself in conversations in
marketplaces and monasteries, in acts of passive resistance, in the flight of
talented people from the country. Then,
every so often, it would burst into the open, as it did in the 2007 Saffron
Revolution
. With brute force, the
military survived that challenge (a reminder that the road to change in Burma
has been far from peaceful). But many
Burmese believe that some army officers felt shame about the violence they inflicted
on the revered Buddhist monks who led that uprising, and about their
government's deadly incompetence the following year when a cyclone ravaged the
country. When Burma's long-serving
dictator Than Shwe retired in 2010, the generation of officers that succeeded
him undoubtedly included some men affected by Burma's traumas who wanted a way
out of the morass it was in.

The more controversial question is whether pressure from outside,
including Western sanctions, also contributed to these changes. I've hesitated to weigh in strongly on this
debate, partly because it is hard to set aside one's own bias (those, like me,
who supported sanctions naturally want to believe that they helped -- and vice
versa), and partly because it's premature to argue about what caused Burma's
transition to democracy when that transition is not remotely complete. Perhaps in twenty years, when archives are
studied and the key players have told their stories, a consensus will
emerge. And then someone will come along
to disprove it.

At the same time, I have found it disconcerting to hear diplomats
and other observers assert with certainty that sanctions had nothing to do with
Burma's political opening. After all,
the United States and other countries imposed sanctions to promote a particular
objective in Burma, and now that objective seems on the verge of being
achieved. It's as if we had turned a hose
on a raging fire and, after seeing the flames subside, said: "How did that happen? It couldn't have been the water we
sprayed." In neither case does
correlation prove causality - a sanctioned state can change course for reasons
unrelated to sanctions, just as a doused fire can burn out on its own. But it is strange not to consider that one's
efforts had their intended effect.

One reason why the Burma sanctions are often discounted is that many
officials who imposed them over the years themselves lacked faith in the
strategy they were pursuing. Bill
Clinton and George W. Bush pushed through sanctions mostly to express
solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi; others in the U.S. government saw them as a
symbolic expression of America's disgust with the Burmese junta, or simply as a
way of appeasing Congressional and public concerns on an issue that was not strategically
important. Few of them actually expected
that sanctions might work!

But some advocates of sanctions had a more reasoned theory of the
case.

First, they believed that Western sanctions would create at least
some objective difficulties for the Burmese government. The generals might not care at first about
sanctions' impact on Burma's economy as a whole (which was always harmed more
by their own mismanagement), and they might compensate for any harm to their
personal finances by doing business with China.
But the argument that sanctions would drive Burma into the arms of the
Chinese turned out to be an argument for sanctions, not against them, since
that was not a place where Burma's nationalistic military leaders wanted to be
for long.

Second, sanctions proponents expected that eventually, Burma's
leaders would want to develop their country's economy and to improve their
standing in the world. To achieve those
goals, they would need access to the very things that sanctions had denied
them: Western investment, markets and
banks, and better relations with the United States. At that point, as I argued in testimony to
the Congress in 2004, the U.S. would say to the Burmese government: "You
cannot make a separate peace with us.
Reach a compromise with your opposition first." The idea was that sanctions
would give the U.S. negotiating leverage, which it could transfer to Aung San
Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition.
The government would need their support to win relief from international
pressure, and to get their support it would have to satisfy some of their basic
demands, including the release of political prisoners, and ultimately to bring
them into the political system.

Of course, no one had a clue when any of this might happen. After Burma's deeply flawed 2010 elections, I
thought sanctions would likely have to be tightened further to produce the
desired effect; I was wrongly dismissive of those who argued that a new
generation of military officers with a new outlook might already be coming to
the fore. Exactly how and why that
happened will be for historians to answer.
But once it did, the Obama administration reached out to them, and Burma's
leaders acted as we had long hoped: they
started talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, and engineered new elections designed to
bring the democratic opposition into parliament. And they acknowledged that they were doing
this in part because it was necessary to improve relations with the outside
world, and to get sanctions lifted.

Everyone I spoke to in Burma, whether they had supported or
opposed sanctions in the past, assumed that the reformist president Thein Sein
was using the promise of relief from sanctions in his arguments with hard
liners in the government. All argued
that the international community must now find ways of rewarding Thein Sein to
help him win those arguments. And they
acknowledged that Western countries only have carrots to offer today because of
the sticks they employed in the past -- every diplomatic and economic sanction
they imposed created a card they can play now, as serious political
negotiations finally get underway in Burma.

Burma's April 1st parliamentary by-elections are the
next important milestone in that process, and should, if they go well, trigger additional
rewards from the West. But the elections
are not the next big test of reform.
Both Burma's opposition and its president want Aung San Suu Kyi to win a
seat -- they need her to champion their cause in the government, and he needs
her to legitimize that government. And
if her party wins, it will control only a tiny fraction of seats in the current
parliament.

As remarkable as the changes in Burma have been -- with some
political prisoners walking free, and real debate breaking out from the front
pages of the country's newspapers to the hearing rooms of its parliament -- the
big tests lie ahead. Laws that
criminalize dissent are still on the books.
Burma's military continues to commit war crimes against ethnic minority
populations on the country's frontiers, and still does not answer to its president,
parliament or judiciary. Burma's Constitution
gives the military unchecked authority over all matters of internal security, the
power to veto constitutional changes and even to dismiss the president.

The elections that really matter in Burma will not come until
2015, when most of the parliament will be up for election. If that vote is free and fair, the opposition
will be in a strong position to win. Hundreds
of former military officers who now serve as members of the pro-government
party would then be swept aside. And
Aung San Suu Kyi would be able to form a government of her own. It is far from clear yet if the military
will allow that. This means that Western
countries need to walk a fine line:
rewarding the changes that have already taken place, but conserving some
leverage, through 2015, to secure the harder changes hopefully still to come.

Another reason to move gradually is that absent deeper political
and economic reform, lifting all sanctions might not even help Burma's economy,
much less its hopes for democracy. If all
restrictions on doing business with Burma were removed, for example, much of
the money would likely flow to military-owned companies or conglomerates run by
the rising class of oligarchs linked to the military, that control Burma's most
lucrative export industries, such as natural gas, timber and gems. This kind of investment would only reinforce
the military's failed development strategy of pulling natural resources out of
the ground, converting them into cash, and storing that cash in off shore, off
budget accounts for the benefit of the elite.
Indeed, one of the salutary effects sanctions may have had during the
years of dictatorship in Burma was to slow down, even if slightly, the process
by which its natural wealth was plundered, laundered overseas, or put to uses
(such as weapons purchases) that did nothing for its people.

A smarter way to lift sanctions, assuming political progress
continues, would be to relax them first on those sectors of Burma's economy from
which ordinary people are more likely to benefit (such as agriculture and
manufacturing), while maintaining them for some time longer on those sectors
from which only the military benefits.

Above all, we should set our sights high when we think of Burma's
future. A few years ago, when soldiers
were gunning down monks and students on the streets of Rangoon, many people
might have been satisfied to see Burma evolve into a country as "free" as
Vietnam or Cambodia. But Burma may now
have leaders, in government and opposition, with the vision to take it so much
further, if only they can overcome the resistance of those who still have a
stake in the status quo. Western
countries can help, if they ease sanctions more strategically, and less
reflexively, than they put them into place.