Engagement succeeded where sanctions failed in encouraging Myanmar’s political reform, Bryan R Early writes.

Economic sanctions are coercive instruments of statecraft that seek to compel a change in their targets’ behaviours. Yet sanctions are frequently imposed when they have few prospects of success, in cases where policymakers want to isolate or punish their targets for objectionable behaviours. For example, the United Nations Security Council has cycled through multiple rounds of sanctions against North Korea in response to its nuclear and missile tests with little to show for it. Even so, continuing to sanction North Korea is viewed as important for demonstrating the international community’s condemnation of the regime’s provocative weapons tests.

There’s a downside to adopting symbolic but ineffective sanctions, however, as they can encourage target governments to become more repressive and damage the welfare of innocent citizens. In the case of the human rights-related sanctions imposed by the United States against Myanmar, for example, there are strong reasons to think that the US sanctions actually made the situation within the country worse for two decades. Foreign policy observers should thus be sceptical of claims that Myanmar represents a sanctions success story, even if it can be argued that the removal of sanctions has become a useful bargaining chip for more recent political reforms in the country.

The United States first imposed economic sanctions against Myanmar in 1988 after its military-led regime’s violent crackdown against political protesters. US sanctions were imposed to curb the regime’s human rights violence and encourage Myanmar’s military regime to democratise. Numerous other sanctions were added via legislation and executive order over the subsequent decades. Not only did Myanmar’s regime fail to democratise in response to these sanctions, but it also got more repressive and engaged in consistently high levels of human rights abuses.

According to Freedom House, Myanmar’s government had the lowest possible scores on its measures of civil liberties and political rights from 1990-2011. The US Department of State’s human rights reports say that Myanmar’s government frequently relied upon political terror, including torture, murder and disappearances, during this period. Amnesty International also documented substantial, continued repression against Myanmar’s ethnic minority populations during the 1990s and 2000s.

That Myanmar’s government was just as or even more repressive after it was sanctioned is neither anomalous nor coincidental. Numerous studies have documented how being sanctioned encourages leaders to consolidate domestic power, crack down on political dissent and ethnic minorities, violate human rights and curb media freedoms. Leaders can exploit internationally-imposed sanctions in labelling dissenters as disloyal or unpatriotic in light of external threats and use the sanctions as justification for moving against them. They can also use the sanctions as scapegoats for other issues that their regime may be confronting, such as economic problems. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response to US and European Union sanctions perfectly illustrates those strategies at work.

While the sanctions against Myanmar did adversely affect the country’s economy, they were not salient enough to seriously jeopardise the regime’s power such that it was willing to make concessions. Instead, the regime only further consolidated power and doubled-down on the tactics that had gotten it sanctioned in the first place. Simply put, the economic sanctions imposed by the US against Myanmar at best failed to improve Myanmar’s human rights policies and, at worst, contributed to more severe crackdowns and more grievous human rights violations for the two decades that followed.

In recent years, Myanmar’s ruling regime has made substantial strides in relaxing its repressive policies, freeing political prisoners, and allowing free elections. This major shift in Myanmar’s policies was aided by a substantial change in President Barack Obama’s approach towards Myanmar when he took office in 2009. Rather than relying solely on sanctions, the Obama administration adopted a diplomatic approach of constructive engagement. While President Obama did not immediately repeal sanctions, he instead focused on finding areas in which to engage in limited cooperation with Myanmar’s government. This approach helped to assuage the regime’s security concerns and allowed its leaders to feel more confident about relaxing the draconian policies it had adopted during the previous two decades.

In April of 2016, formerly imprisoned political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to take power after her party won freely-contested elections in the country. While the removal of US sanctions served as a bargaining chip for enhanced reforms by Myanmar’s military regime, that only became possible by virtue of President Obama’s initial efforts at using positive engagement. In September of this year, the Obama Administration fully lifted US sanctions against Myanmar while continuing its policy of enhanced engagement with Myanmar’s government.

Significant work remains in improving Myanmar’s human rights record and its treatment of ethnic minorities, but the Obama administration viewed engagement—as opposed to sanctions—as the best strategy for encouraging continued improvements in those areas.

The Myanmar case suggests that economic sanctions that fail in coercing their targets to change their behaviours but are left in place to punish and isolate them can be counterproductive. If Obama hadn’t adopted a new engagement-based strategy, there is little reason to think that the US sanctions would have played a constructive role in encouraging Myanmar’s military regime to adopt reforms. Engagement and cooperation are much more responsible for the recent political transformation that has taken place in Myanmar than the pain and isolation inflicted by US sanctions. If policymakers want to learn a positive lesson from the Myanmar sanctions case, it is in how engagement-based strategies can be effectively used where sanctions policies have failed.

Bryan R Early is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University at Albany, SUNY and the Director of the Center for Policy Research.

This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and debate.