Last month, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments about whether the State of Massachusetts can impose a "selective purchasing" law which penalizes multinational companies from doing business with Burma (also known as Myanmar). This law is designed to force companies to choose between doing business with one of the world's most repressive governments, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), or bidding on lucrative state contracts valued at $2 billion per year.
Critics, led by US business, believe the Massachusetts law is unconstitutional because it infringes on the federal government's ability to conduct foreign policy and its right to regulate foreign commerce.
Supporters of the law contend there is nothing in the Constitution that denies states the right to apply a moral standard to their spending decisions.
A key issue in the case is whether states (and cities) can impose tougher sanctions on foreign trade than the federal government. The court is expected to render its decision on Natsios v. National Foreign Trade Council in June.
In some respects, however, the constitutional questions raised in this case are moot for the peoples of Burma. The important question for them is whether sanctions are able to change the SPDC's behavior. Though the Massachusetts law and US sanctions have been successful in portraying Burma as a pariah state, they have not had any success in fostering democracy or improving the human rights situation. In fact, sanctions appear to have only hardened the resolve of Burma's generals to continue dominating the country's political and economic apparatus.
Supporters of the Massachusetts law point to the success of similar legislation used in the 1980s that helped end apartheid in South Africa and believe similar pressure can contribute to the downfall of the SPDC.
This is an incongruous analogy. In the 1980s South Africa's economy was well integrated in the global economy, and all of its neighbors supported sanctions. Conversely, Burma's economy is at a subsistence level, and none of its neighbors support sanctions. Though foreign investment in Burma has plummeted 95 percent in the past year, this has more to do with the country's political uncertainty, inefficient economic policies, and the Asian economic crisis than sanctions from the West. Indeed, Burma's economy is faltering, but this doesn't necessarily mean the SPDC is on the verge of collapse.
The US government has weighed in on the side of US business, saying the Massachusetts law should be struck down because it interferes with the federal government's efforts to craft a comprehensive policy toward Burma. However, unilateral sanctions, whether imposed by a state or national government, should not be construed as being a policy, but a tactic. The US has been very specific in what it wants the SPDC to do (relinquish power) in order to improve Burma's standing in the international community.
But the US has also been opaque about what it is willing to offer the SPDC leadership if it was willing to step aside. Burma's generals will not go gently, and any strategy on how to move beyond the political stalemate between the SPDC and the country's main political opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will have to bear this in mind.
Whatever decision the Supreme Court renders in June, the US will have some form of sanctions in effect. The US cannot remove sanctions because that would reward the regime for doing nothing. But without the SPDC capitulating to the NLD and the US's demands to relinquish power (a highly unlikely scenario) what can be done?
Burma's prospects are dim. SPDC policies are unable to deliver improvements in employment, human development (particularly health and education), and poverty reduction that will be needed if Burma is to achieve its potential. And the international community's lack of unanimity will not work to bring the SPDC to the negotiating table and help bring national reconciliation.
This will require that parties both within and outside Burma demonstrate a willingness to compromise. This will not be easy given how poorly Burma's successive military governments have treated their people for almost 40 years, and the generals' subsequent fear of retribution from both internal and external influences if they were to lose power.
But until there is a coordinated strategy by the international community, and a willingness by all sides in Burma's political equation to compromise, the international community and forces for democratic political change inside Burma should expect to remain at loggerheads with a regime whose policies continue to erode the country's potential and bankrupt its people's future.
* John J. Brandon, a Southeast Asia specialist, is assistant director of The Asia Foundation in Washington. The views expressed here are his own.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society