When Don't Sanctions Work?

Morten Pedersen, a scholar on Burma, offers a thoughtful critique of economic and aid sanctions against Burma over at Guernica. He points out that sanctions worked in South Africa because white South Africans were hurt and “shamed” by the sanctions imposed by “their peer group in Europe.” Burma’s situation is different: “The Burmese generals have no affinity at all with the people who are sanctioning them. Culturally, there’s no link whatsoever.” [%comments]




For not dissimilar reasons I wondered at the last U2 concert I went to (360 degrees) why Bono - who once took on political causes he could actually have an effect on - was not throwing all of his efforts behind drumming up support for the Burmese opposition. It made no sense given that nothing any of his fans could or would do would have any impact on the Burmese junta.

Sad, but I think that U2 has started to focus on peripheral political causes that are seen as unlikely to lose them record sales (whereas back in the day they may have taken risks in saying things about Northern Ireland or US foreign policy or whatever else).

As for the sanctions argument above, yes it clearly has no effect. Since they're already totally isolated and enjoy no support outside the country, there is very little we can do from the outside to convince the Burmese junta to loosen their grip on power in Burma - at least if they don't see it in their own interests.


David L

If sanctions were purely about shame, then their economic magnitude would be irrelevant. That's obviously not the case, so I have to call B.S. on this argument without having read the paper.

That said, there is a disconnect that prevents sanctions from working as they are purported to do in macro-theory land: the fact that the despotic regimes most commonly subjected to sanctions are, by definition, not answerable to their constituents, so they are often able to pass on whatever misery is entailed by economic sanctions to their citizens without consequence to their grip on power, at least in the short term.

Khin MAung Phyu III

Sanctions on Burma do not work.

Reasons :

1. Big brother China is supporting the Generals in Burma.
2. The Generals in Burma has no shame and they do not really care.
3. ASIAN is also not really supporting the sanctions.


Khin Maung Phyu III


I also wonder whether sanctions would work against a pariah state like Israel, despite its standing among the rich nations.


What a sophomoric 'theory' from a 'scholar' on the subject.

Sanctions won't work when, say, your Dad cuts off your allowance but your Mum continues to give you enough to survive or even do well.

Europe and America imposing sanctions obviously won't hurt when ASEAN countries, as well as Japan, China, etc continue to trade with Burma.

"White South Africans were hurt and shamed"? Good Lord, what Kindergarten comes up with such reasoning. Mikhail Gorbachev chose to start Glasnost, just as FW de Klerk chose, Muammar Khadaffi chose, Anwar Sadat chose, and Menachem Begin chose-they were not buckling under unbearable suffering which pushed them kicking and screaming into making peace.

Anyone who seriously believes that the world's biggest economy America and many of the mid-size economies of Europe can cause hurt, while the second-biggest-then Japan and now China choose to not join in, needs to expose himself to the less-neat realities of the world outside his cozy library in which he concocts his theories.



ASEAN is not hard enough on them and countries like Singapore actually sell them landmines.

Sasha Mrkailo

In my experience: sanctions are a weapon which tears apart the essence of the society. here in Serbia it hurt the ordinary people very much. The ruling elites which were responsible for everything have not been hurt at all. What happens when goods supply are severed? They just tighten control on whatever resource and source they can. They ration, appropriate, steel, smuggle, whatever it takes. And they got what they need. The people are those who are punished, the elite becomes even stronger since they get full control of essential needs, like fuel in case of Serbia. The ruling class in our case merged with pure criminals. This worsened everything. Sanctions don't work, unless their goal is collective punishment.

Steve O

@2: What's going on in Burma is really truly terrible. I wouldn't describe it as a "peripheral" cause, because it's one of the worst human rights crises of our generation.

Sanctions in Burma won't have a huge effect, BUT my impression is that most Burma rights groups emphasize using China's influence and appealing to China's morality rather than the junta in Burma. If there is enough pressure on China, they could turn the tide.

Christopher Strom

So, as far as I can tell, not a single commentor here actually read Geurinca's interview with Mr. Pedersen...

But no need to let that stand in the way of a firey opinion.

Saw Thee Weng

Burma gets billions of dollars a year in gas revenues from Western oil companies and Thailand's PTT - why not force the oil companies to disclose their payments to the generals?


Then we can ask the Burmese government where the money went.