Is it Time for the US to Lift Sanctions?

By Aung Zaw 8 September 2016

Burma’s road to democratization is still incomplete but has made some progress. No one should doubt the length of the journey before greater civilian control is seen in the country.

The army holds the key—keeping one quarter of seats in the parliament and controlling the ministries of home affairs, defense, and border affairs—but has recently shown some willingness to work with the elected government headed by Burma’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

In recent months, the Burmese have seen the new government struggle to transform the old system, but Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s huge popular mandate has proved key in consolidating power. But a mountain of challenges remains.

The recent 21st Century Panglong peace conference ended on a positive note, for the most part, but achieving stability and peace in ethnic regions will take decades.

War continues in Burma’s north—several ethnic armies continue to engage along front lines, and armed conflict between ethnic armies is common. Displaced communities seeking shelter, food and peace remain in limbo. But perhaps there is some hope if peace process stakeholders and the public share a common vision, towards a federal democratic union.

The fundamental changes seen in the country in recent years are no longer cosmetic, but real. The country is opening up and the people enjoy more democracy and freedom than before.

This has contributed to renewed expectations—including from former ruling generals and their cronies—that the US will further ease sanctions in the wake of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Washington DC next week.

After meeting with congressional staffers, Ben Rhodes, US President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said that Obama was now considering reducing sanctions or removing them altogether.

Since the country launched political and economic reforms in 2011, the US has eased restrictions on trade, investment and financial institutions in Burma in successive stages, and has normalized diplomatic relations. In May, the US removed state-owned banks from its targeted sanctions, which were renewed for another year.

 The US Department of the Treasury maintains its roster of “Specially Designated Nationals” (SDN), which includes several of Burma’s most prominent tycoons and members of the military elite, with whom US companies and individuals are still barred from doing business.

When US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Burma in May and met with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he suggested that a further relaxation of sanctions would not occur until the military allowed the fundamentally flawed 2008 Constitution—which enshrines their frontline role in politics—to be amended.  

Kerry said at the news conference, “The key to the lifting of the sanctions is really the progress that is made within [Burma] in continuing to move down the road of democratization […] it’s very difficult to complete that journey—in fact, impossible to complete that journey with the current constitution. It needs to be changed.”

In mid August, a proposal for a parliamentary debate over whether the government should pressure the US for the removal of remaining sanctions was shot down in the Lower House.

As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi continues to engage in tough negotiations with the military, it is safe to assume that her party wants to maintain some sanctions as a bargaining chip—to ensure that, one day, the military will be under civilian control, unlike the current situation: that of two lions sharing one cave.

“Many of the Burmese on the US sanctions list are criminal suspects and human rights abusers,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

“The US should assist Burma in promoting genuine economic development, not help those who made ill-gotten gains during military rule,” he said.

The China Factor

Many ordinary Burmese would likely welcome a further easing of US sanctions on trade, investment and commerce, allowing more US investment and companies to move in. More importantly, one can assume that many Burmese would welcome the US’s continued active engagement in Burma.

Why? To put it simply: so as to counter the influence of Burma’s powerful neighbor—China.

Beijing took a bold step in inviting then opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to visit China before the general election last year. Last month, China’s President Xi Jinping welcomed back Burma’s State Counselor, promising among other things to help Burma’s peace process.

China’s stepping up of diplomatic engagement with Burmese stakeholders, seen over the last year, demonstrates that Beijing is more than ready to work with the new government: taking measures to boost trade and investment and offering more aid, furthering its strategic interests in its southern neighbor while doing so.

The Burmese don’t want to see a government heavily reliant on China, but a government that makes friends in the West and forms alliances in the region and beyond, allowing Burma to become an active regional player. Several Burmese political observers share the view that it is time to rebalance the China relationship and realize Burma’s geopolitical potential.

In this changing environment, the US can play a supportive role in sustaining political momentum, backing ongoing reform, deepening diplomatic relations, and aiding the economic, health, education and other sectors where Burma needs both short- and long-term assistance.

While following this strategy, removing some military-linked cronies from the SDN list would not surprise or upset many Burmese. It has been conjectured that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will even request that US officials remove some individuals from the list.

However, there is an ongoing debate in Burma over whether removing all US sanctions would cause bumps in the road ahead for the new civilian government. There is also opposition to growing US interest in military-to-military engagement with Burma’s armed forces.

Moreover, ethnic minority leaders and activists have expressed concern over anticipated military-to-military engagement between the US and Burma.

In Washington DC, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will meet with President Obama and with prominent congressmen and figures who supported Burma’s democracy movement over the last couple of decades, including through sanctions. There have been unconfirmed reports that a meeting with the US defense secretary is also scheduled.

The US military has shown interest in deepening contact with the Burmese armed forces, for instance talking of offering Burma non-lethal security assistance such as International Military Education and Training. Burmese military officers have been invited to observe the annual Cobra Gold regional military exercise involving the US and various Southeast Asian nations.

In mid 2014, deputy of the US Pacific Command Lt-Gen Anthony Crutchfield addressed Burmese officers at the National Defense College in Naypyidaw, speaking of human rights and the need for civilian control of the military. The same year, the Burmese defense minister attended the US-Asean Defense Forum in Hawaii. In Burma, US diplomats and visiting American officials often hold separate meetings with Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

“What if ethnic groups are attacked with US-provided technology?” prominent Shan political leader Khun Htun Oo said to The Irrawaddy in Aug. 2014.

No matter how hard Washington attempts to assure critics that military engagement in Burma would not involve the training of combat forces or the exchange of weapon systems, but would instead focus on promoting respect for human rights and “professionalism,” many remained unconvinced.

How Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Barack Obama and the US Congress will handle the issue of sanctions remains to be seen. But many activists, ethnic women’s rights groups and civilian lawmakers would see any kind of substantive military engagement as premature.

Indeed, the purpose of keeping sanctions is to advance democratic reform in Burma—ensuring that progress is irreversible, and that the military fully withdraws from politics in the future.