RANGOON — President Barack Obama’s declaration earlier this month that Burma poses an “extraordinary threat” to US national security does not represent a backtracking in his country’s relations with Burma, a top official says.
US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell said on Tuesday that Obama’s declaration on May 15 had received “a great deal of attention, much of it exaggerated and based on misunderstanding.”
Attempting to clarify, Mitchell said the declaration was a technical formality that was necessary for the United States to renew for another year the National Emergencies Act, allowing not only the extension of certain economic sanctions against Burma, but also actions to ease other restrictions, including limitations on new investment by US companies.
“Far from being a step backward, the renewal of the national emergency has allowed us to continue to encourage the positive reforms underway, keeping in place our ability to license activities—including encouraging responsible investment by US companies, among other actions—that will provide material benefits to the people of this country and support reform,” Mitchell said during a speech at the Rangoon-based Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank that was established by the former regime.
In a letter to leaders of Congress on May 15, Obama said he was renewing the National Emergencies Act for another year because Burma “continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Despite progress on political reforms—including the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners and progress on negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic armed groups—the US president noted a number of remaining concerns in the Southeast Asian country.
“The political opening remains nascent, and concerns persist regarding ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas, particularly in Rakhine [Arakan] State, and the continued role of the military in the country’s political and economic activities,” Obama said.
Mitchell said the renewal of the National Emergencies Act would keep in place economic sanctions on “specially designated nationals,” or individuals and entities that materially benefited from close relations with Burma’s former junta and continue to stand in the way of reforms.
“But even they are able to have their cases reconsidered if they can demonstrate changed behavior and support for reform,” he said of the specially designated nationals.
Mitchell added that the renewal of the National Emergencies Act also allowed the US president to authorize the waiving of restrictions on the exportation of financial services and new investment by US companies.
“So with due respect for the media here today, contrary to all the reports and other commentary of the past few weeks, nothing has changed in our engagement policy with the May 15 announcement, nothing at all,” the ambassador said.
Economic sanctions were placed on Burma under the former regime, following a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1988 and the regime’s rejection of election results in 1990.
Citing ongoing human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, some activists have accused the US government of moving too quickly to roll back sanctions under President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, which came to power in 2011.
The United States has taken a more cautious approach regarding sanctions compared with some other countries, including member states of the European Union, which permanently lifted all sanctions except an arms embargo on Burma last year.