By Joseph Allchin
US sanctions on Burma are ineffective and incomprehensive, according to a leaked cable sent by the former head of the US embassy in Rangoon in 2008.
Although the content of the cable, made public by whistleblowing website Wikileaks, casts the economic blockade in a cynical light, Shari Villarosa, who was the most senior US diplomat in the country from 2005 to 2008, claims they gave the US the “moral high ground”.
The admission will support arguments made by both the pro-engagement, and indeed the pro-sanctions, camps that the sanctions are not working, or that they are not tough enough to have any effect on the Burmese junta.
Mark Farmaner, the head of Burma Campaign UK, which has pushed for tougher sanctions on the pariah, agrees. “We have never had the sort of sanctions we asked for”, he told DVB, adding however that “the US does deserve credit for going further than other countries, particularly with the sanctions on financial transactions which has caused the generals a lot of trouble”.
Despite having made the remarks in a 14 July 2008 report Villarosa compiled when leaving her post at the embassy, she does also suggest that the US should consider “lifting the visa ban [on the ruling generals] if they release Aung San Suu Kyi”.
Given that the opposition leader has now been released from house arrest, the generals may be hopeful that the visa ban, which has been in place since 1988, may be slowly rescinded after years of expansion in which more and more generals were added to the list.
Villarosa also suggests that, “We may also want to consider putting security guarantees on the table for the most senior generals and their families if we are serious about removing them from the scene”.
This reflects a common diplomatic concern that the generals are unprepared to step aside given the threats of prosecution or retribution they face if they were to lose power.
What response these sentiments have had from Washington, or indeed Naypyidaw, will no doubt remain a mystery for some time, but the idea of engagement seems to have informed US President Barrack Obama’s policies towards Burma. Despite Villarosa being a Bush-era appointee, she does not reflect the former administration’s more hardline policy towards the generals.
The cable paints a picture of US policy being starkly split between the moralistic position enhanced by elected politicians, and the realpolitik of the state department and civil servants, who although appointed by their elected colleagues, play a very different game.
“No matter how democratic transition comes about in Burma, the military will be involved given its vast control over the political and economic structures of the country,” Villarosa said. “We should make an effort to seek out and speak with the more progressive military officers and to those who have access to the senior generals. Their hostility to democratic change is motivated by paranoia and distrust of the West.”
Combined with her cynicism towards the National League for Democracy (NLD), which emerged in another leaked cable, Villarosa’s paean to the “moral high ground” will likely have its detractors. US priorities for Burma, she said, lie with “our position and influence inside when change does come, so we can assist the Burmese to reform their political and economic systems in a manner that best promotes U.S. economic and strategic interests.” This she sees as being enhanced by funding to civil society groups and community-based organisations.