Burma: domestic reforms and international responses


Important questions confront Burma's political leadership, and their response will play a key role in determining the international community's, including Australia's, future engagement.

Prior to the installation of a civilian government in April 2011, Burma had, for all intents and purposes, been governed by a military regime for almost fifty years. The most recent incarnation of this regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), was established in 1997 in the wake of the quashing of mass uprisings in 1988 and a pro-democracy movement in support of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, following the party’s landslide victory in a 1990 general election.

During the SPDC period, the Burma was subject to sanctions by the United States (US), the European Union (EU) and Australia, effectively barred from receiving concessional loans from International Financial Institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank, and had limited official relations with most Western countries. Burma did, however, pursue closer relations with its neighbours, particularly China and India, and was admitted as a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997.

The sanctions regimes applied by the West have evolved in response to developments within Burma. In addition to an arms embargo imposed in 1993, since 1997 the US has pursued a range of restrictive measures, applying travel restrictions, financial transaction controls and asset freezes on individuals and entities associated with the military regime, as well as import and investment bans on US companies. The EU has applied visa restrictions on members of the military regime, their families and allies, as well as a freeze on overseas assets. After the September 2007 suppression of a wave of public protests led by Buddhist monks, both the US and the EU tightened sanctions.

Australia’s current restrictions on Burma centre on financial sanctions under the Banking (Foreign Exchange) Regulations 1959. These sanctions have been targeted against members of the Burmese regime and their associates and supporters. Under the sanctions, transactions involving the transfer of funds or payments to, by the order of, or on behalf of specified Burmese regime figures and supporters are prohibited without the specific approval of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Australia has also maintained targeted travel restrictions against senior regime figures, their associates and supporters. Like the US and the EU, Australia also maintains an embargo on defence exports to Burma. Official development assistance has traditionally been restricted to humanitarian aid delivered through multilateral and non-government agencies. The Australian Government has not imposed general trade and investment sanctions on Burma.

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