Sanctions — as a September 2011 report on Burma by the International Crisis Group maintains — only reinforce a “siege mentality” among Burmese elites, hampering engagement efforts and increasing the likelihood that mistrust and paranoia, two features that have historically dominated Burma’s foreign relations, reign unchallenged in regime thinking.

Indeed, there is a growing recognition in the international community that engagement, rather than sanctions and diplomatic isolation, is fast emerging as a more productive strategy in pressuring the Burmese government to reform. This is highlighted by recent trips to Burma by a succession of foreign ministers: Australia’s Kevin Rudd; US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton; Japan’s Koichiro Gemba and the UK’s William Hague.

Despite this shift in international thinking on Burma, Greens senator Scott Ludlam has criticised the Australian government’s announcement on Monday to reduce the number of Burmese individuals on its financial and travel sanctions list, claiming that sanctions should remain in order to “increase the pressure on the regime”. The argument is misguided.

Australia’s targeted financial sanctions against certain Burmese officials and their families are merely symbolic. In place since October 2007, they involve the prohibition of some 463 targeted persons from conducting financial transactions through Australian banks and the prevention of their travelling to Australia. As Trevor Wilson, of the ANU, has argued, these sanctions were never likely to have an impact on a country with a “very underdeveloped financial sector” and where there was no previous evidence of regime members involved in transactions through Australian banks.

The removal of former Burmese ministers — who are no longer involved in the country’s politics — from the sanctions list, hardly constitutes a major relaxing of Australia’s Burma sanctions (Australia’s ban on the export of military-related hardware remains in place). The kind of compromised stance that Ludlam suggests will only stimulate the regime to implement sham reforms in return for concessions.

What Ludlam and human rights activists such as Zetty Brake champion is for Australia, in line with other Western nations, to maintain and even bolster its Burma sanctions regime until more concrete signs of political and human rights reform are discernible. This outdated, punitive approach, which implies the international community should simply “sit and wait” for reform, has proven a policy failure.

The Burmese regime has consistently managed to offset the impact of Western sanctions by relying on China (and to a lesser extent ASEAN) for political and economic support. For instance, while the US maintains a ban on new investments in Burma, China has adequately filled the void, with more than $US14 billion in new investment promised in Burma’s 2010-11 fiscal year.

The Australian government is rightly moving beyond the lapsed and mouldering sanctions-led approach to influencing change in Burma. Despite the reservations of many who warn that recent Burmese reforms may be only “skin deep”, it is not too early to offer tangible incentives and encouragement. Australia should look to increase engagement with Burma on multiple fronts — increased aid, increased diplomacy, increased co-operation on transnational crime issues — and in this way, impress upon Burmese officials the level of progress on political and human rights reform that the international community demands.

*David Hopkins graduated from the University of Melbourne with a master of international relations and has recently completed an internship with Asialink, where he compiled a research briefing on contemporary Burmese politics