In 2017, the world watched in horror as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled their homes in Myanmar’s northwestern state of Rakhine into Bangladesh, following a crackdown by the Myanmar military against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an insurgent group active in Northern Rakhine State that claims to defend the Rohingya population against state oppression. The Myanmar government, however, considers it a terrorist group.

Northern Rakhine State has a history of insurgency and communal violence stretching back to Myanmar’s independence in 1948. At that time, a Mujahedeen movement sought to unite with what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and later, various separatist movements were active in the area from the early 1970s.

It is the belief of some Myanmar people that the majority of the Rohingya population are made up of Bangladeshi immigrants, rather than descendants of earlier settlers and therefore, are not considered to be entitled to Myanmar citizenship.

The effectiveness of trade sanctions is primarily reliant on the circumstances of the target country.

It is this history and the ongoing activities of ARSA that have convinced the Myanmar generals that both the Rohingya and the international media who criticise their conduct are threatening the national sovereignty of Myanmar.

The humanitarian crisis caused by the ongoing violence in Rakhine has led many human rights groups to advocate for the reimposition of economic sanctions against Myanmar by Western governments as a means to secure fundamental rights for the Rohingya and end this humanitarian crisis. Despite their best intentions, economic sanctions have not proven to be effective in promoting human rights.

The effectiveness of trade sanctions is primarily reliant on the circumstances of the target country. While sanctions were a factor in ending apartheid in South Africa and establishing a multi-party democracy, they have largely failed to achieve results in Cuba, North Korea, and Russia. They have been ineffective in other situations for a number of different reasons: In Russia, sanctions actually bolstered support for Putin’s regime while in the US, sanctions on Cuba were ineffective mainly due to the availability of other trading partners. In South Africa’s case, however, sanctions supported a popular movement aimed at ending apartheid and sanctions were imposed by South Africa’s main trading partners.

Sanctions are effective primarily because the economic impact is large enough to influence government policy. These conditions are absent in Myanmar

Myanmar’s situation is unique primarily because of its isolation from the international community from 1962 to 2012 and its ongoing transition from military rule to a civilian democracy. Under these circumstances, trade sanctions are likely to be ineffective in aiding the Rohingya and promoting their rights as human beings. There are several reasons why economic sanctions will most likely be unsuccessful, not least the lack of support for the Rohingya among Myanmar’s main trading partners, civil society and top military officials.

First, in cases where sanctions have been successful, the countries have mostly been those deeply integrated into the global economy, with their elites reliant on such integration to maintain their standard of living. Foreign investment and trade in these countries were crucial for their governments to maintain the wealth and prosperity of their main supporters.

Sanctions are effective primarily because the economic impact is large enough to influence government policy. These conditions are absent in Myanmar, whose economy is primarily based around agricultural output. Myanmar’s middle class is small, approximately only 5.3 million and many owe their affluence to military patronage, making them unlikely to use their influence to apply pressure to military officials to resolve the Rohingya crisis.

Second, in South Africa, those with the authority to stop apartheid were elected in a partial but functioning democratic system and were, therefore, unable to ignore the demands of the voters that elected them. In comparison, many of Myanmar’s generals are in a position to ignore groups who oppose the military’s treatment of the Rohingya.

Third, it is this isolation that has shaped the national security ideology of the military. This ideology influences the military’s actions in Rakhine state, as their primary objective is to maintain national sovereignty and unity.

Sanctions would, therefore, be viewed as an act of foreign aggression by military officials, likely stiffening their resolve rather than bringing about a change of policy.

While the civilian government and civic groups could potentially apply internal pressure on the military to change its policy on the Rohingya, it would likely be unsuccessful due to the military’s constitutional control of the Ministries of Border Affairs and Defense– which effectively grants the Myanmar military jurisdiction over matters relating to security in Northern Rakhine State and ultimately, determines government policy concerning the Rohingya crisis. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the NLD civilian government would risk a confrontation with the military over the Rohingya, for whom their mainly Bamar-Buddhist support base have little sympathy.

Fourth, in cases where sanctions were successful, these sanctions starved the target countries not just of commerce and trade – but also of the social and cultural contacts that were crucial to maintaining their identity. When Western nations imposed sanctions on South Africa, white South Africans lost the West as their primary cultural reference.

Myanmar does not rely on countries in the West or any of the countries that have condemned its treatment of the Rohingya, to maintain its cultural identity.

Along with economic sanctions, Western nations introduced sporting, cultural and academic boycotts of South Africa. The inability of South African sporting teams to compete on the international stage was a devastating psychological blow to white South Africans as sport and, in particular, rugby was an essential part of their cultural identity.

Myanmar however, does not rely on countries in the West or any of the countries that have condemned its treatment of the Rohingya, to maintain its cultural identity. Instead, Myanmar relies primarily on its regional neighbours to maintain its identity, with the vast majority of its sporting and cultural exchanges occurring with other ASEAN countries.

Fifth, except for neighboring Bangladesh, there has been a lack of support among Myanmar’s main trading partners and neighbours in imposing sanctions. This is likely due to Myanmar’s neighbours abiding by the principle of “non-interference,” a principle enshrined in ASEAN’s charter that promises to respect state sovereignty and refrain from interfering in its members’ domestic issues, making it unlikely that any of these countries would support the imposition of trade sanctions.

According to Myanmar’s Central StatisticalOrganisation, its four most significant trading partnersin 2015 were China, Thailand, Singapore, and Japan, who are collectively responsible for 74.8% of Myanmar’s official trade. This figure does not include the sizeable informal trade that occurs across the borders with Thailand, China and India. In 2017, China, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong provided 80% of Myanmar’s foreign direct investment.

Not only have none of these nations condemned Myanmar’s military for its actions against the Rohingya, but China has vetoed UN resolutions against Myanmar.

If Western countries were to impose sanctions without the support of Myanmar’s main trading partners and suppliers of foreign investment, then they would fail to achieve their objective. Instead, it would damage Myanmar’s economy, inflame anti-western feeling and threaten the already fragile links between Burmese human rights advocates and the outside world.

Sixth, in cases where sanctions have been successful, it was because they supplemented and reinforced strong internal pressure for political change. For example, in South Africa, the pressure brought about by Western sanctions was a factor in the South African government’s decision to begin negotiations with the African National Congress and other related groups. Currently, there is no group in Myanmar that is both willing and capable of exerting enough internal pressure on the military to change its current policy on the Rohingya.

There is a firm belief among the majority of the population in Myanmar that the Rohingya are taking over Buddhist lands. This view stems from the widely accepted idea that the Rohingya are not indigenous to Myanmar – an idea that has been increasingly circulated on social media where a large number of Myanmar’s Buddhists take the social media posts of Ma Ba Tha and other ultranationalist Buddhists leaders as fact, rather than opinion. It is because of this rhetoric and social media presence that an increasing number of Myanmar citizens believe that the Rohingya are economic migrants from Bangladesh rather than descendants of Arab traders, perceiving them as a threat to their Buddhist beliefs, despite the Muslim population only being between 2 to 5 percent.

To be effective, sanctions must work through internal mechanisms that do not currently exist in Myanmar.

Instead, many Rakhine and Bamar buddhists blame the Rohingya crisis on the international media, which they believe to be publishing false information. They argue that the media is focusing on the Rohingya while underreporting the suffering of the Rakhine Buddhists, who have also suffered from attacks by Muslim groups. Furthermore, newspapers that relay the government’s account of the crisis cast the military as responding to terrorist attacks on the Buddhist population, strengthening the belief among much of Myanmar’s population that the military is the only institution that can protect the territorial sovereignty of Myanmar.

From their point of view, the international media’s accusations of ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses are an unsubstantiated attack on Myanmar as a nation.

It is for these reasons that there has not been a powerful internal movement to promote the rights of the Rohingya, and without sufficient internal pressure on the government to change its policy, sanctions are unlikely to be successful.

To be effective, sanctions must work through internal mechanisms that do not currently exist in Myanmar. As there was in South Africa, for sanctions to be a force for change, there must be a popular domestic movement that supports the aims of the sanctions – in this case, the promotion of the Rohingya’s human rights.

While this is unlikely to occur due to widespread hostility for the Rohingya among Myanmar’s population, there are other mechanisms that can influence public opinion to change this. One such mechanism is social media, which can play an important role in fostering a discussion among Myanmar’s civil society by taking measures to restrict unsubstantiated hate speech and increase access to quality journalism.

Instead of isolating Myanmar by imposing sanctions, Western countries should continue to engage with Myanmar’s government, military and civil society and support Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transition by preventing the military from re-establishing its rule.

Writing for the Lowy Institute, Hunter Marston outlined what he believes to be a realistic solution. First, working with various domestic and international stakeholders to restore stability in Rakhine State and ensure security for all its residents: Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists alike.

After achieving human security, measures should be undertaken to reintegrate Rohingya into the Myanmar community, including the freedom of movement of both the Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists, as continued separation will likely lead to future conflict.

Finally, if Western governments and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) wish to participate in providing humanitarian aid to the Rohingya, they need to give some guarantee that they will not intervene in domestic affairs, as this a constant fear of Myanmar’s military.

Instead of isolating Myanmar by imposing sanctions, Western countries should continue to engage with Myanmar’s government, military and civil society and support Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transition by preventing the military from re-establishing its rule.

Several recommendations made by the Kofi Annan Commission, such as granting citizenship to the Rohingya and promoting their political representation and participation, are unlikely to be implemented in the near future. Despite the merit of these suggestions, the problems that caused the Rohingya crisis are the result of attitudes and issues that have been a part of Myanmar society for generations and cannot be expected to change overnight. Isolating Myanmar would slow this changing of attitudes towards the Rohingya by restricting the flow of new ideas and information by reinforcing a siege mentality among Myanmar’s leaders.

Only by engaging in open and honest dialogue can a solution to the Rohingya crisis be brought about. Economic sanctions, however, will almost certainly not help Western nations establish this dialogue with Myanmar, nor will it likely succeed in coercing Myanmar’s military to respect the fundamental rights of the Rohingya. Either way, if Western nations wish to help the Rohingya, they must find another way, as sanctions are not the answer.

This piece was first published by Tea Circle Oxford.


Andrew Thomson has a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Western Australian and is currently undertaking a Masters of International Development at the same university. This article was written based on experiences and observations made whilst undertaking an internship at a Yangon-based consulting firm.

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