As the international community struggles to deal with Burma, talk is now focusing on sanctions. But for sanctions to work, they must be mandatory for all countries and approved by the UN Security Council.

Short of this, the boards of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank can independently impose bans on lending. Although Burma has received no loans from international financial institutions since its military government ignored Burma’s 1990 elections results, the military refuse to relinquish power.

Since China and Russia will veto any proposal for UN Security Council sanctions, Western governments, including the Howard government, are introducing new unilateral sanctions with much fanfare. But unilateral sanctions are a poor substitute for the real thing, even if they are coordinated. They are easily circumvented, make the Burmese regime less cooperative not more cooperative, and end up hurting the Burmese people more than the military regime.

True, Burmese democracy leaders support sanctions, but many Burmese opposed to the military regime do not agree with sanctions, because of their indiscriminate nature. The Burmese people are much worse off economically and socially because of sanctions, and do not see any benefits from their sacrifice. This is why Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi changed her position on provision of international humanitarian assistance, which she now supports. Sanctions are primarily a convenient recourse for the country imposing sanctions, and a tool for the Burmese opposition groups whose political interests they serve. Unless they are universally applied, they do little towards achieving their stated goal of political change.

In such situations, where few effective forms of pressure are available, we need new thinking about how to accomplish regime change peacefully. Countries like Australia with little economic leverage might do better to apply “reverse sanctions” which empower the people rather than try (unrealistically) to disempower the regime.

Australia could undertake to consider any claims for asylum from people who participated in the protest in Burma and subsequently have to flee (though this would probably be anathema to the Howard Government). At the very least, as a humanitarian gesture, Australia should immediately give protection status to the eight Burmese Rohingya asylum seekers it has quietly detained on Nauru for the last 14 months, ever since they arrived by boat on Ashmore Reef.

Australia could also stop denying students from Burma access to Australian Government scholarships and allow them to compete as individuals with others from Asia to acquire skills and knowledge not available in Burma, hopefully to benefit Burma under a different regime. Rather than blocking Australian trade and investment, Australian business should be encouraged to trade and invest in Burma, if they judge this commercially viable, under a code of conduct whereby they employ and train Burmese civilians under “best practice” provisions that surpass the minimalist conditions required under current Burmese law.