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.