New Zealand sanctions on Myanmar: Will they work?

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Myanmar community members from around New Zealand gathered in Wellington to protest on Parliament grounds on Tuesday. Photo / Jack Crossland

Aid groups and observers say New Zealand’s decision to cut political ties while maintaining humanitarian aid to Myanmar is the right thing to do, even as their impact is a question mark.

It signals the New Zealand Government’s solidarity with our cause, says Christalin Thangpawl, chair of the Myanmar Ethnics Council, a network of some 6000 members of the Myanmar community across New Zealand.

“We in the aid sector are really pleased the Government is taking a strong position,” says Josie Pagani, director of the Council for International Development, or CID.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the suspension of high-level political and military contact with Myanmar on Tuesday, including a travel ban on army leaders.

She said New Zealand will ensure its aid programmes will not be delivered with, or benefit the Myanmar army.

“We will have that extra rigour to ensure we are not in any way supporting the military regime as a result of that (aid) work,” she said in response to reporters’ questions during a post-Cabinet media conference.

How realistic are these efforts, given that entrenched military interests in Myanmar spread far and wide?

“It is realistic,” says Pagani of CID, an umbrella agency of New Zealand charities whose members include organisations working with vulnerable communities in Myanmar on food security and agriculture.

“A lot of these charity-to-community programmes can continue, while putting on hold government-to-government stuff like training government officials on renewable energy, for example.

“It’ll need to be sorted out on a case-by-case basis. Not an ideal situation, but it would be worse to stop aid that is going to humanitarian outcomes,” she said.

“The sanctions adopted are correct but we need to realise how small we are in this debate,” said Alexander Gillespie, professor of international law at the University of Waikato.

“The real levers here are with trade and security, and China controls these, not New Zealand or the Five Eyes,” he said, referring to the intelligence alliance comprising the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Sanctions – including targeted or smart sanctions such as visa bans – will likely have little effect in reversing the coup, says Bart Gaens, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Writing in a recent publication, he said EU sanctions on Myanmar when it was under military rule “did not harm the leadership significantly but instead brought about a bunker mentality.”

“More importantly, China was happy to continue business as usual, further increasing Beijing’s clout over its neighbouring country.”

So the West may need what he called dialogue and pragmatic engagement with Myanmar’s military regime to have an impact on the country’s future, he says.

Gillespie agrees, saying New Zealand needs to stay connected on diplomacy.

“The risk is not just to the democracy of Myanmar, but also to ethnic minorities and  conflict breaking out (between the army and the country’s ethnic groups). These tensions have not gone,” he said.

Members of the Myanmar community in New Zealand say they are concerned about escalating violence in Myanmar, following reports and social media posts of police using teargas, water cannons, rubber bullets and even live ammunition on protesters.

“We fear more bloodshed in the coming days and weeks,” said Ye Aung, a member of Auckland community group Myanmar Gon Ye, or pride.