West vows to get tough on Myanmar junta - but how?

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BANGKOK, Sep 29 (Reuters) Outraged at the bloody crackdown against protesters in army-ruled Myanmar, the West is again vowing to get tough with its recalcitrant generals.

It's easier said than done.

For years the junta has ignored and survived trade bans, visa restrictions and asset freezes riddled with loopholes, enforced half-heartedly and hurting the people more than the generals, analysts say.

Now, with the world appalled at the violence on the streets of Myanmar's main city, Yangon, Western governments are scrambling to find any lever to back up their rhetoric.

''Just sabre-rattling and a lot of words is not going to be very credible,'' said Bradley Babson, a retired World Bank Myanmar expert.

''There may be a few symbolic things, but what we can we do to get to Than Shwe?'' he said, referring to the Senior General who has led the current junta since 1992.

Washington took aim at the junta supremo and 13 other top regime officials on Thursday, freezing their assets in the United States, banning their financial transactions and broadening a travel ban on them and their families.

''They are going after the personal finances of the regime for the first time in history,'' Jeremy Woodrum of the US Campaign for Burma said.

Sean Turnell, an Australian academic and co-author of Burma Economic Watch, said targeted sanctions would sting, but not threaten the generals' grip on power.

''So many of the generals themselves and people connected to them are desperate to send their children to Westerm universities. That affects them in a personal way,'' he said.

The US Treasury Department gave no further details, but other observers questioned their effectiveness.

''I don't think they have any assets in the US, nor are they interested in spending their holidays there. The generals' assets are, mostly, in banks in Singapore,'' said Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert based in Chiang Mai.

SANCTIONS DEBATE Academics, activists and exiles have long argued over the effectiveness of sanctions, first called for by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in the 1990s after the generals rejected a landslide election victory for her National League for Democracy.

The United States, the junta's loudest critic and the one with the toughest measures, first imposed sanctions in 1988 after soldiers crushed student-led protests, killing 3,000 people.

Washington banned new investments by US firms in 1997.

Six years later it restricted Myanmar's access to foreign banks and barred imports, a move that forced tens of thousands in textile factories out of work.

''The US sanctions ground business to a halt, but gradually they found ways around the sanctions,'' said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK.

By comparison, sanctions imposed by European Union members over the years have been ''pathetic'', he said, most notably a freeze on assets that has netted less than 7,000 euros in all 27 EU member states.

Access to European markets is restricted and an arms embargo is in place, but many countries allow their companies to do business in Myanmar.

''At the moment the position of the EU is 'we won't sell you weapons but we'll do business with you so you can buy them somewhere else,'' said Farmaner, who lambasted the EU's failure to make good on its threat of consequences if there was violence.

Days after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned the ''age of impunity'' was over, and other European leaders echoed similar views, EU ambassadors on Thursday called on experts to ''swiftly examine options'', including targeted sanctions.

''They are shooting people in the street and the EU response is to set up a committee. A delay will be seen as a green light by the regime that it can carry on shooting without facing consequences,'' Farmaner said.

CHINA, INDIA DO BUSINESS Critics of sanctions say they have reduced the leverage of the West and hurt ordinary people while the generals still do business with their Southeast Asian partners and larger neighbours China and India.

Myanmar's neighbours -- their efforts to coax the generals to reform long ignored -- gave their strongest rebuke yet in response to the violence but there has been no talk of sanctions.

Beijing, a key trading partner and arms supplier to Myanmar, has urged restraint, but also resisted pressure for UN sanctions.

Appearing to acknowledge on Thursday that American sanctions would not be enough to end the crackdown, US President George W. Bush met with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to ask Beijing to exert its influence on the junta.

Turnell agreed China had the economic clout, but he was sceptical of its ability to stop the bloodshed.

''I think the generals are in survival mode. They are so far into the zone of fighting for their survival that even the Chinese would have a limited impact in the very short term.'' Reuters SS VP0620

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