WASHINGTON — The U.S. Treasury on Friday blacklisted a hard-line lawmaker of Burma’s ruling party, accusing him of undermining political and economic reforms.
Human rights activists step welcomed the action against Aung Thaung, who was industry minister under the former ruling junta and a leader of a pro-military organization blamed for mob attacks. His family has extensive business interests in Burma.
The announcement came two weeks ahead of a visit to Burma by President Barack Obama for a summit of regional leaders. Obama on Thursday called Burma’s President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, urging credible elections next year and addressing sectarian tensions.
The U.S. has rolled back most sanctions against the country as it has shifted from military rule since 2012. But to the chagrin of American companies wanting to invest there, Burma retains targeted restrictions against some individuals and companies.
“By intentionally undermining the positive political and economic transition in Burma, Aung Thaung is perpetuating violence, oppression, and corruption,” said Adam Szubin, the director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees the sanctions.
“The United States firmly supports the Burmese government’s progress on reforms, and we remain vigilant about targeting those whose activities facilitate repression and dictatorship,” he said in a statement.
Szubin was not more specific about those allegations, but did mention that Aung Thaung has been implicated in previous attacks on the democratic opposition.
Aung Thaung was a leader in a pro-junta organization accused of conducting a 2003 attack on a convoy carrying opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi that killed a number of her supporters. He later served in senior leadership positions in the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Recent mob violence by Buddhist extremists against minority Muslims has stirred concern similar forces could be behind sectarian clashes that Western officials say could threaten Burma’s transition to democracy. Aung Thaung has denied any involvement.
Aung Thaung could not be reached for comment Friday. Burma’s government spokesman did not immediately respond to an email on the matter.
Since Burma embarked on democratic reforms, Burmese nationals added to the U.S. sanctions list have principally been officials suspected of trading weapons with North Korea. Blacklisted individuals and companies are prohibited from holding assets in the U.S. and doing business with Americans.
Rights activists have long pushed for Aung Thaung to be included.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in Washington, said there were serious allegations over Aung Thaung’s complicity in past crackdowns, and that his family’s business ventures involved human rights abuses like land grabs and forced labor.
“Burma cannot complete a transition to democracy if the existing military leadership and its cronies refuse to relinquish their power and corrupt revenue sources,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Yangon itself recommended blacklisting Aung Thaung and two of his sons some six years ago, according to diplomatic cables obtained and released by WikiLeaks. The sons are still not sanctioned.
A Sept. 19, 2008, cable said the sons, Pyi Aung and Nay Aung, amassed tens of millions of dollars running Burma’s second-largest timber company, exporting rice and winning contracts to explore for oil and gas. Nay Aung was also suspected of brokering arms deals with China and North Korea.
When the Obama administration took office in 2009 and opened the door to diplomatic rapprochement with Burma, it shied away from sanctioning more officials as it sought to win the confidence of its ruling generals and encourage democratic reform.