Lifting Myanmar Sanctions: Carrot-and-Stick Diplomacy

The announcement that the US is lifting its longstanding ban on imports from Myanmar, known also as Burma, is yet further evidence that the Southeast Asian nation’s political and economic reforms have been well received in the West. Washington had already removed the prohibition on American investment in Myanmar. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is on a visit to the US, as is Myanmar President U Thein Sein, had supported the easing of sanctions. The question is whether these sanctions had any effect in convincing Myanmar’s military rulers to implement political and economic reforms and to release political prisoners including Suu Kyi. Indeed, do sanctions work? Are they working in Iran, in North Korea?

Some argue that economic sanctions can be effective, if certain conditions are met. Others argue that they only hurt the people of the affected countries and not the leadership. In Myanmar’s case, it could be argued that the military’s decision to pursue reforms has been motivated by regional strategic interests rather than by the sanctions. There is no denying, however, that Myanmar has moved quickly to open up – but are the reforms for real? The next three years will reveal the answer to that important question.


3 thoughts on “Lifting Myanmar Sanctions: Carrot-and-Stick Diplomacy

  1. Lam Ka Yun, Ondy

    Personally, i don’t think sanction especially the economic one had any real effect on making the sanctified government change their attitude. Taking Iran as another example, numerous nations and multinational entities impose sanctions against the country. However, we don’t see any material change in the nature of the country and the government is still keen on developing nuclear weapons that regionally or globally consider a threat to safety.

  2. Kwong Mung Kwan, Candy

    I think the effectiveness also depends on whether the sanction is “unanimously” agreed and practised by all states. Take the example of North Korea, with China backing them, they seem to have no fear on the UN sanctions imposed on them. It has been repeated reported that China has been offering massive food aid to North Korea and the former remains the largest trade partner of the latter. I think with dictatorial states like North Korea, any reform will more likely be driven by internal forces like change of domestic interests, pressure from the society, or, simply the will of the leader.

  3. Patrick Cheung

    Many scholars have debated heatedly and extensively over the effectiveness of sanctions for many years. On one hand, the US and the UN have been enforcing sanctions to influence proliferators and human rights violators, such as Iran, N. Korea, Sudan, Libya, Myanmar, etc. On the other hand, policy makers disagree regarding the effectiveness of sanctions as it may takes a long time for the positive effects to surface, and its consequences that the “sanctioners” have to conduct follow-through punishments on the “sanctionees” if sanctions failed.

    Dr. M. Shane Smith (currently Research Fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction) stated that sanctions are more likely to have a positive influence, if 1) there is multilateral coordination, 2) the targeted government faces domestic opposition, and 3) sanctions are combined with incentives. Smith also pointed out that there were only 2 UN-approved sanctions during the Cold War, unlike the post-Cold War period where sanctions were pretty much placed on any aggressors/ corrupt leaders. One possible argument is that sanctions are ineffective in a bipolar world as the two most powerful states are fighting over each other for competitive advantages. In contrast, in a unipolar world, the hegemonic state may utilize its (absolute) power to enforce sanctions on weaker states.

    Hence, I would say that the effectiveness of sanctions is uncertain as it strongly depends on the type of system (polarity) at that time.

    M. Shane Smith, “Sanctions: Diplomatic Tool, or Warfare by Other Means?”. Available online at


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