Washington Conference Foreshadows Lifting of Sanctions

By Sally Kantar 15 September 2016

The future of American sanctions on Burma was a recurring issue during a panel discussion convened in Washington DC on the eve of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to the US capital; just one day later—despite objections from multiple civil society and rights groups—the White House pledged to lift all financial restrictions on the country.

“The United States and Myanmar: Next Steps” was webcast live on Tuesday from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and explored Burma’s existing economic restrictions and potential for growth. Participating in one of two panel discussions were Bo Bo Nge, of the Rangoon-based think tank the Renaissance Institute; Serge Pun, founder of both Yoma Bank and the Serge Pun & Associates conglomerate; and Erin Murphy, founder and principal of the Inle Advisory Group in Washington DC. A second panel discussing Burma’s democratic transition followed.

Washington-based Burma advocates who attended or watched the event spoke to The Irrawaddy about what was perceived as a lack of concern for ongoing Burma Army offensives in ethnic states, widespread practices of land confiscation, and mass displacement—issues they feel should have taken precedence over an accelerated economic agenda.

Current US sanctions against Burma—which now stand to be removed—include bans on imports of rubies and jade, prohibitions on business with individuals on the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) list, and financial dealings with non-state armed groups, the Burmese military, or military-owned enterprises.

The Kachin Alliance, an advocacy group headquartered in Washington, published an open letter on Monday to President Obama calling a relaxation of sanctions “extremely premature” in light of the Burma Army’s “systematic use of rape, torture, extrajudicial killing, torching, and other acts of terror against ethnic civilians.” Citing similar concerns, a New York Times editorial on Tuesday advised maintaining pressure on Burma, referring to a lifting of US sanctions at the present time as “a mistake.”

The US Campaign for Burma also recently recommended the continuation of targeted sanctions as long as “human rights violations by the armed forces […] continue unabated” and those with “past relationships with the military junta […] continue to profit from their relationships.”

On Tuesday, panelist Bo Bo Nge listed a series of domestic economic challenges that he said could not be addressed through the relaxation of sanctions, including high inflation rates, and a lack of transparency surrounding budget finances, past government deals, and land prices and ownership.

“Just lifting something that is imposed from abroad will not solve all of these problems,” he said.

He also warned of the types of partnerships that could be formed in a sanction-free environment.

“By freely lifting everything and letting everyone go in, who will you align with? You will align with someone who has more privilege than others,” he said, referring to the potential building of economic relationships with businesspeople whose wealth was earned during military rule.

Even fellow panelist Serge Pun, frequently lauded as a “clean” Burmese businessman—who, at the Washington forum, railed against corruption—built an economic empire in Burma while the country was under army rule. Due to his alleged ties to the military, US officials reportedly recommended in 2008 that he be sanctioned, but he was not added to the blacklist.

Kachin Alliance president Gum San Nsang told The Irrawaddy that sanctions could not be blamed for limiting the growth of the Burmese economy.

“Burma had been a ‘least developed country’ for over a decade prior to the installation of US economic sanctions,” he said.

In 1987, then under military rule during the Socialist era, Burma applied for and received “least developed country” status, which it still retains. It was hoped that the economic benefits granted by the designation would ease a level of underdevelopment already systemic before the US banned new investment by American nationals in Burma in 1997, citing a repressive political climate and rampant human rights violations.

These violations, the US Campaign for Burma’s Myra Dahgaypaw pointed out, continue to include the “displacement […] of thousands of people,” due to ongoing civil war and land grabs. Over 120,000 ethnic Kachin are currently displaced in northern Burma, across more than 100 IDP camps, and a further 140,000—disproportionately from the Muslim Rohingya minority—have been displaced since 2012 by ethno-religious violence in Arakan State, amounting to what some have termed a genocide.

Over 100,000 refugees from various ethnic groups across eastern Burma remain in camps along the Thai border, where some have lived for more than two decades. Uncounted others are thought to be unrecognized refugees, surviving as migrant laborers throughout Southeast Asia.

And yet, a narrative depicting Burma as a “frontier market” continues to seduce potential American investors, as well as arguably influence policy toward the country.

During her talk on Tuesday’s panel, Inle Advisory Group founder Erin Murphy—who has lobbied in favor of eliminating sanctions—described Burma as a country with “everything you can think of […] every mineral, oil and gas,” and “a great labor population.” The statement stood in sharp contrast to the Kachin Alliance’s illustration only one day earlier of 52 million people “struggling to extricate themselves from the bondage of the past.”

An end to US sanctions on Burma may embolden those who view the country in starkly economic terms, prioritizing profit over a responsibility to those currently caught in conflict, often over the same resources—gemstones, coal, jade, oil, gas, hydropower—coveted by international investors.

“Being an ethnic person,” Dahgaypaw told The Irrawaddy, “it hurts me to my core […] when there is no mention of how to better the lives of ethnic minorities.”

While the White House has consulted with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi regarding the future of sanctions, advocates for ethnic rights could have provided President Obama with a different strategy for navigating Burma’s economic landscape.

Gum San Nsang of the Kachin Alliance explained that the most appropriate resource the US could have provided would have been technical assistance to strengthen fiscal and monetary policy, as well as regulations to safeguard investment laws.

“Economic growth is needed,” Myra Dahgaypaw added, “but one has to do it responsibly, with open eyes, foreseeing the problems ahead—what will benefit the people on the ground, and what could harm them a great deal.”