Yesterday the Australian government eased some of its sanctions on senior Burmese officials. The changes mean that targeted financial sanctions and travel restrictions will be lifted on “former Ministers and Deputy Ministers who are no longer in politics [and] tourism officials”. Furthermore, “members of Burma’s new Government who were not previously on Australia’s sanctions list will not be listed at this time”.

Everything to do with sanctions is, as I have argued previously, limited, Western and symbolic. These recent moves from Australia serve to reinforce that argument. But, at the very least, we are incrementally moving to a situation where debate about Burma policy can move beyond the inadequate preoccupation with elite sanctions. This is undoubtedly a positive outcome and I hope it also sends yet another small signal to Naypyidaw that the world is watching developments closely.

I do wonder, however, about the way that governments such as Australia’s will deal with the ongoing strife in ethnic areas during this period of gradual re-engagement. Surely there need to be significant international efforts to make a peaceful and sustainable resolution to Burma’s decades-long ethnic greivances part of any new deal. The long-term issues in ethnic areas cannot be ignored.

Compared to sanctions, which has always been a distraction from the main issues, the ethnic conflicts really do matter. Simply, without peace in places like the Kachin State there will be no peace for Burma. Today Kachin leaders are also trying to draw attention to their plans for secession if a fully federal system is rejected. Even once the last of the sanctions are removed there will still be plenty to discuss.

Update: The Democratic Voice of Burma provides a useful summary of opinion on the topic of sanctions. It has comments from Sean Turnell, Derek Tonkin, Maung Zarni and I.