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Sanction Smarter

Want to Stop Burma's Junta? Treat 'Em Like Kim Jong Il


As the Burmese junta’s brutal crackdown on opposition activists continues, with police still rounding up and defrocking monks and hunting down leaders of the protests, the outside world scrambles to have any impact on the ruling generals. Despite China’s reluctance to impose overly tough measures on the generals, the United Nations agreed to a consensus statement condemning the crackdown, and U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari plans to return to Burma in November. Last week, President Bush announced new sanctions on the junta, which adds to two previous rounds of American sanctions.

But none of these measures appear likely to have much impact. Shrugging off the United Nations's condemnation, the junta has bunkered down. Burma’s state-controlled media has been making outlandish statements claiming the protesting monks had explosives and vowing that the country would move forward with its supposed “roadmap to democracy”--really a roadmap to nowhere, since the generals have been stretching out this supposed democratic transition for over a decade. The junta claimed it would meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but only under such a strict set of conditions Suu Kyi had to reject them. New sanctions imposed by the United States, and even Europe, are unlikely to have much impact. Few Western companies were invested in Burma anyway, and the ruling generals normally don’t bank at Western financial institutions. Meanwhile, regional powers like India, China, and the Southeast Asian countries, heavily invested in Burma, are unlikely to back more comprehensive sanctions.

To make an impact in Burma, perhaps the world should stop looking at the junta like a bunch of military men and start treating them like Kim Jong Il. After years of futility trying to get North Korea to negotiate about its nuclear program, the U.S. and other countries imposed not tougher sanctions, but smarter sanctions. They shut down Pyongyang’s access to banking in Macau, long a key hub for North Korea’s nefarious activities. They made the sanctions very specific, hitting Kim hard by identifying the luxury goods he loves and trying to stop them from getting into the North. At times, China, Pyongyang’s lifeline, even apparently cut off North Korea’s energy imports. American officials as well as some Chinese diplomats credit the smarter sanctions with helping push Kim to the negotiating table.

A similar strategy might work in Burma. Unlike nations where comprehensive sanctions have worked, like the apartheid South African regime, the Burmese generals don’t care about their international image. In South Africa, a sports-crazy nation, bans on letting South African teams participate in the Olympics, as well as global cricket and rugby tournaments, had a significant impact. In Burma, Senior General Than Shwe, rumored to be extremely xenophobic, rarely travels abroad. Not exactly the type of guy who cares about op-eds in the Washington Post and speeches in the House of Commons.

Yet unlike South Africa--and like Kim Jong Il--the Burmese junta has not created enough of an infrastructure within the country to allow them to stay at home for medical care, luxury goods, and banking services. (South Africa had built a sophisticated financial capital in Johannesburg.) And Than Shwe, who apparently is trying to emulate ancient Burmese kings, clearly loves the high life. Undoubtedly the hottest online download shared among Burmese exiles is a leaked video of the wedding of Than Shwe’s daughter. In it, she sports an egg-sized diamond and sits, princess-like, as scions of Burmese elite families present her and her new husband with gifts.

With a North Korean-like regime that doesn’t care about the world, but is dependent on it for critical items, you have to hit them where they hurt. Long reported to be ailing, Than Shwe flies out of the country for medical care in neighboring Southeast Asian nations. His family also frequently heads outside the country, likely for shopping trips--during the September protests, the senior general parked his family in Bangkok. Burmese businesspeople with alleged close links to the generals also reportedly have extensive bank accounts in neighboring states.

So, smarter sanctions could include efforts to prevent certain top generals from accessing nearby health care and luxury shopping. They also could crack down on bank accounts in Southeast Asia linked to the junta, depriving the junta of the money they need to continue living lavishly in their new jungle capital, Naypyidaw.

Unlike broader sanctions, smarter sanctions might enjoy the support of critical countries in the region. Speaking with some regional diplomats this week in Southeast Asia, several worried that cutting off access to the junta’s health care would be viewed as unnecessarily harsh. “Why not just go the old way, and assassinate him?” one asked me. Still, even in the countries around Burma, the level of frustration is rising. And China was willing to work with the U.S. before in toughening financial controls on Kim Jong-Il--Macau is a special administrative region of China--and might be willing to do so again. Individual Southeast Asian nations, meanwhile, could back smarter sanctions without all having to agree amongst themselves. To take broader measures, all countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have to agree--unlikely, given that Asean itself contains regimes, like Laos and Vietnam, which are hardly examples of protecting human rights.

Targeted sanctions also might help unite Burmese themselves. Inside Burma, many opposition activists, including Suu Kyi, support tough Western sanctions. But other Burmese I’ve spoken with criticize the sanctions as making Burma’s humanitarian emergency worse. Smarter sanctions, though, probably would spark no such divide. And before the junta can arrest even more of the opposition, the world needs to wise up.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

By Joshua Kurlantzick