Is it time to start easing sanctions on Burma?

The weekend byelection victories by pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and her party bode well for the prospect of further reforms in Burma. But Burma watchers, while welcoming the wins, caution that the real test of Burma's commitment to democracy is yet to come.

Despite Aung San Suu Kyi's byelection victories, Burma reform is still a work in progress, analysts say

Burma pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, centre, arrives at the headquarters of her National League for Democracy party in Rangoon on Monday. Suu Kyi said she hopes her victory in a landmark election will mark the beginning of a new era for Burma. (Khin Maung Win/Associated Press)

On the surface, the weekend byelection victories by Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), bode well for the prospect of further reforms in a country where democracy has long been in short supply.

The NLD took at least 40 of the 45 parliamentary seats that were up for grabs in the 664-member assembly, a remarkable turn of events for a party whose leader has been under house arrest for much of the past 20 years. 

But Burma watchers, while welcoming the wins by Suu Kyi and her party, caution that the real test of Burma's commitment to democracy is down the road.

"In the short term, it's very good news," says Elliot Tepper, an expert on democratic change and human rights at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. Suu Kyi, "the Nobel laureate and global icon for democracy, finally has a seat in parliament."   

However, he cautioned, "in the long term, the question remains open whether the military will ever cede power in Burma."

For a better understanding of that Tepper says people should look ahead three years, to 2015, when the next national elections are held.

"If her party sweeps the elections as it did in 1990, will the military allow her to take power this time? Or will it react by crushing the democracy movement, as they have done in the past?"

Tepper, noting that Canada has strong sanctions in place against Burma, said Monday he expects Canada will continue to use sanctions as a "strategic lever" to improve human rights and democracy in the country.

 Canada's economic sanctions against Burma

  • A ban on all goods exported from Canada to Burma, except humanitarian goods.
  • A ban on all goods imported from Burma into Canada.
  • A freeze on assets in Canada of any designated Burmese nationals connected with the Burmese state.
  • A ban on new investment in Burma by Canadian persons and companies.
  • A prohibition on the provision of Canadian financial services to and from Burma.
  • A prohibition on the export of any technical data to Burma.
  • A prohibition on Canadian-registered ships or aircraft from docking or landing in Burma.
  • A prohibition on Burmese-registered ships or aircraft from docking or landing in Canada and passing through Canada.
Source: Department of Foreign Affairs

However, in Burma last month, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird signalled during his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi that it might soon be time to revisit the sanctions.

"Clearly, we'll be watching in the coming weeks with an eye to re-evaluating the measures that we've taken against the government here," Baird said, noting at the time that Sunday's elections would be "an important milestone."

Some Burma watchers think Canada should now ease some — but not all — of the punitive measures.

"We should lift some of the sanctions as a way of saying thank you," suggests human rights expert Errol Mendes, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa.

But calling Burma's moves to date "small gestures," Mendes says Canada still needs to keep its foot in the door. "Essentially, you have 80 per cent of the seats still held by the army or its allies," he told CBC News.

Indeed, many human rights groups are warning that the world should not to rush to the conclusion that Burma has finally seen the full light of democracy.

"Given the small number of seats involved, these byelections should not be touted as a serious test of Burma's commitment to democratic reform," says Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch in New York.

"The real test is whether the new parliament can reform repressive law and civilians can assert authority over the military," she says. In fact, Human Rights Watch argues that the Burmese government had an interest in seeing a few NLD victories "to legitimize its reform process."

Surprising reforms

Still, the byelections are the latest in a series of surprising reform moves that Burma's new military-backed civilian rulers have enacted in the last couple of years.

First, there was the release in 2010 of Suu Kyi herself following two decades of imprisonment and house arrest. That was followed by the release of many political prisoners earlier this year. Press censorship has also been relaxed.

So why after so many years of total repression are Burma's power-brokers doing this now?  Many Burma watchers feel it is because of the country's complicated relationship with big neighbour China.

The byelection campaigns by Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party were closely followed by Burmese voters. But Burma watchers say it remains to be seen if the reforms will continue. (Reuters)

"We can only speculate on what caused the current Burmese leadership to create democratic space after so many decades of repression," says Tepper. "The desire to rejoin the world and gain respectability while escaping over-reliance on their huge neighbour, China, are likely reasons."

Mendes also sees China as a key piece of the puzzle and says Burma may be regretting its decision to shut out the democratic world and put so much reliance on Beijing.

"The Chinese, instead of being beneficial allies, started grabbing up resources that Burma felt should be more controlled by the country itself," he says.

As a result, he says, it was either a case of continue "as a client state of China" or try to become an Asian tiger itself —perhaps by following the Indonesian route of embarking on a democratic transition away from its military junta.

The world has cautiously acknowledged that Burma is making progress. But the world also knows that the gains so far could stall or even be reversed. And no one knows that more than Aung San Suu Kyi.

"We hope this will be the beginning of a new era," she told cheering supporters the day after she won her parliamentary seat. 

By 2015, she could be Burma's president. But only if the people get to have their say. 

With files from The Associated Press