United States Urged to Renew Burma Sanctions

By Brandon Tensley 10 May 2016

US President Barack Obama should renew the country’s sanctions on Burma in light of ongoing abuses against minority groups, two international human rights groups said on Monday.

“While some clamber for normalized US relations with Burma, international crimes against minorities persist and the unreformed military maintains significant political power,” Tom Andrews, a former US congressman and president of the Washington-based group United to End Genocide, said in a joint press release with Fortify Rights, which is based in Bangkok.

In a new 34-page report—“Supporting Human Rights in Myanmar: Why the US Should Maintain Existing Sanctions Authority”—the two advocacy organizations drew particular attention to Burma’s continued persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, saying that “more than 140,000 Rohingya and other Muslims [are still confined] to more than 40 squalid internment camps in [Arakan] State, while another one million Muslims in the country face severe restrictions, particularly on freedom of movement.”

The report, based on 43 interviews with eyewitnesses and survivors of human rights violations and with officials from the United Nations as well as “others” in Rangoon Division and Arakan and Kachin states, expressed concern over the Burma Army’s continued abuse, torture and killing of civilians in conflicts that continue to flare in the north. It also criticized the often destructive impacts of Burma’s lucrative jade trade, centered in Kachin State, which reportedly generated approximately US$31 billion in 2014.

A US ban on jade imports would also be lifted later this month if existing sanctions are not renewed.

Fortify Rights and United to End Genocide want US sanctions to hold fast for at least another year to prevent backsliding on Burma’s much-lauded reforms of the last several years.

“The current sanctions regime is deliberately limited and creates incentives for human rights abusers to clean up their act,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “These measures are sensible and should remain in place. Known human rights abusers shouldn’t profit from improved bilateral relations.”

The United States first imposed sanctions on Burma in 1997, when the former pariah state was still firmly under the military’s thumb. It was not until 2011 that the United States made moves toward restoring diplomatic ties with Burma, after former President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government came to power. While this eased broad economic sanctions affecting many sectors, scores of influential Burmese businesses and individuals remain “blacklisted.”

The human rights groups appeared largely to be hoping to coax actors within the military to “clean up their act” in pushing for renewed sanctions—such as by ending “violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international criminal law” by the Burma Army, and holding its personnel to account, regardless of rank—but the civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government was also offered recommendations on improving Burma’s human rights record.

For instance, the report called for the new government to “end all discrimination in law, policy and practice against ethnic and religious minorities, including Rohingya Muslims and Kachin Christian minorities,” referring by name to the 1982 Citizenship Law that has effectively withheld citizenship from most of the country’s Rohingya, who were also excluded from Burma’s otherwise widely praised November election.

“President Obama should renew the sanctions authority without delay and make clear that promoting human rights in [Burma] will remain a priority in US foreign policy,” Andrews said in the press statement.

Obama has until May 20 to renew existing sanctions or allow them to expire.