US Sanctions on Burma Renewed Despite Reforms

By Lalit K Jha 3 August 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C.— In a strong indication that US lawmakers feel that Burma’s reforms have still not gone far enough, the US House of Representatives and the Senate on Thursday renewed sanctions against Burma for another year.

The renewal of the sanctions under the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act—though delayed by a few days—now heads to the White House for US President Barack Obama to sign into law. After passing the legislation, US lawmakers said that they would like Burma to carry out more reforms, including the release of political prisoners.

Under the legislation, which was included in a legislative package along with other trade measures related to Africa and Central America, the United States will continue to ban imports of Burmese products for another year. The legislation was unanimously passed by the both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Welcoming the move, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, refuted reports that the bill renews sanctions for three years. “The measure we are passing renews import sanctions for one year and one year only. I emphasize this point because it has been misreported that this bill renews sanctions for three years. That is not accurate; the bill renews them only for one,” he said.

McConnell also clarified that enactment of this bill does not overturn the easing of investment and financial sanctions that the Obama administration unveiled earlier this year. “In fact, this year’s bill—as in years past—provides authority for the administration to waive the import sanctions should it determine that certain conditions have been met,” he said.

However, before deciding whether to waive import sanctions, McConnell said he would strongly urge the administration not only to consider the changes occurring within Burma, but also to consult closely with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.

“By passing this legislation extending sanctions for one year, the US Congress sent a clear message that we will continue to stand squarely with the Burmese people in their struggle for human rights,” said Congressman Joe Crowley, one of the main sponsors of the legislation in the US House of Representatives.

“While we have seen many signs of progress in Burma and it is important to acknowledge and respond to that progress, there is still more to be done. Too many political prisoners are still in prison, violence continues against ethnic minorities, and not all necessary political reforms have been put in place,” Crowley said.

It is critical that the US continue to carefully balance its efforts to show recognition for some of the political changes that have taken place while continuing to press for further progress by keeping this law on the books, the lawmaker said.

Appreciating the recent reforms in Burma, McConnell said he would like to see US investment in Burma.

“I want to see investment in the ‘new’ Burma. I want to see Burmese reformers empowered accordingly, and I want to see greater economic development come to this underdeveloped country. And, frankly, during challenging economic times here at home, I want American businesses to be able to compete in Burma now that sanctions have been removed by other Western governments,” he said.

At the same time, he said high standards for accountability in American business operations in Burma are important going forward. This is particularly acute with regard to transactions involving the state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, he noted.

As such, he urged US businesses to show the Burmese people and the world the positive effects that American investment brings. “I am confident that, as they do elsewhere around the world, US enterprises in Burma will set the standard for ethical and transparent business practices and lead the way for others to follow,” he said.

The US Campaign for Burma welcomed and supported the unanimous decision of the US Congress to extend sanctions against the ruling elite, the military and cronies who control the Southeast Asian country and continue to commit crimes against humanity against ethnic minorities under a system of impunity.

“Congress has sent a clear strong signal to Burma’s ruling regime—sanctions will remain in place while political prisoners remain behind bars, military attacks and human rights abuses against ethnic minority civilians persist, and until genuine national reconciliation, justice and accountability are achieved,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director of the US Campaign for Burma.

“While some reforms have been undertaken by President Thein Sein, Congress recognizes much more needs to be done.  Renewal of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act demonstrates the need to focus on ethnic minority rights and genuine democratic reform and freedom,” she said.