Central & South Asia

US Policy Towards Myanmar: The Strained Quality of Sanctions


December 22, 2011 10:30 EDT

Analysis on US foreign policy towards Myanmar.


The United States seems to have a penchant for imposing sanctions. Perhaps this proclivity is based on the functioning of a vigorous, almost raucous, democracy together with a high public moral rhetoric of the type that is often undercut by US actions. The US has some degree of sanctions against perhaps two dozen countries for a variety of reasons, the nub of all of which is to force compliance to some US goal.

Sanctions are simply a tactic to attain some end. Those ends may range from a change in national policy, from apartheid to the development, transfer, or use of certain weaponry or trade issues, to its ultimate form—regime change. In the US, sanctions are easy to pass because their passage reflects moral indignation over what Congress deems some outrageous action, with which no one wants to be associated. They are also difficult to rescind because various interest groups will lobby for their retention under some rubric or another; furthermore, there are legal issues connected with their introduction through executive branch orders. Sanctions may or may not relate to the maintenance of a degree of US national security interests. The comprehensive sanctions against Myanmar, in which the US has peripheral, publicly articulated security interests, are far greater than those against North Korea, where US security is a far higher, even a major, concern. There is no correlation between type of regime (authoritarian, for example) and sanctions. Sanctions against Myanmar are strict, but there are truncated but legal opposition political parties in that state; yet, China, Vietnam, and Laos in East Asia all have a single, authoritarian political party and sanctions are absent. This discrepancy in foreign policy does not go unnoticed in Myanmar.

The Myanmar Issue

United States policy toward Myanmar is characterized by sanctions. “Economic sanctions are a cornerstone of US policy toward Burma.” (From“US Economic Sanctions on Burma: Some Reflections.” US Embassy Rangoon cable #00000446, July 16, 2009. Released by Wikileaks, August 30, 2011.) That policy, introduced incrementally in emotional response to outrageous acts by the Burmese military, has become embedded in external American politics. This seems incongruous given the paucity of publicly articulated US national interests at stake in that country, but it is a product of a singular concentration of emotional interest and respect for one Nobel laureate—Aung San Suu Kyi—who has become the avatar of democracy to the Western world. Her views, or what are purported to be her views when she has not been allowed to communicate with the outside world, in effect strongly influence US policy toward that country. Until January 2010, she has been mentioned 1,598 times in the Congressional Record in a bipartisan display of respect.

Although US foreign policy is normally composed of diverse strands reflecting disparate national interests—including political, economic, trade, investment, security, strategic, etc., this has not been true of policy toward Myanmar. Its focus has only been on human rights and democracy issues—it has been a “boutique” issue in US foreign policy; that is, it is salient to a small, but influential, group.

The official sanctions regimen started in 1997. Since the coup of 1988 however, restrictions were placed on US support to the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC-the military junta, later changed to the SPDC-State Peace and Development Council). After a coup, law required the termination of US economic assistance (which was modest), and the anti-narcotics program and military training were also stopped. US economic assistance programs had been reintroduced in 1979 by a US administration under President Carter that was devoted to human rights and democracy in rhetoric but which, in effect, allowed for the support of a military-dominated authoritarian, single party, socialist government. Human rights were not mentioned in these negotiations.

Sanctions were instituted in response to events highly disturbing to the Western world. The 1997 sanctions were a response to the junta’s ignoring the results of the May 1990 elections, which were swept by the opposition NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi had been under house arrest since July 1989 and could not participate even though the NLD was her party). The sanctions of 2003 were a result of the ugly incident in central Myanmar (Depayin) in which government-authorized thugs killed a disputed number of Aung San Suu Kyi’s entourage and roughed her up. The 2008 sanctions, the “Jade Act” were a result of the “Saffron Revolution”—neither saffron nor a revolution—but demonstrations by Buddhist monks brutally broken up by the Burmese military. The sanctions, inter alia, restrict new investments after 1997, travel to the US by senior administration and economic allies and their families, all imports except educational materials, arts and handicrafts, restrictions on jade and ruby imports, and the use of any US banking facility. International NGOs that used dollars for programming or paying staff had to request and receive special warrants from the US Treasury Department. Some in the Congress wanted to impose Cuba-like sanctions, restricting all travel by US citizens, eliminating the “grandfather” clause that allowed continuation of US businesses established before 1997, and even the sanctioning of China if it continued military support to the junta, and Thailand if it did not treat Burmese refugees better. None of these amendments or suggestions passed.

In response to the trauma of the Saffron Revolution, the government sped up its interminable process of writing a new constitution that had been in desultory process since 1993 (in response to the 1990 election debacle). It was completed and subjected to a Stalinistic vote in a referendum (92.4% approval) in May 2008 that was interrupted by Cyclone Nargis that killed some 138,000 people. The West questioned the excruciatingly slow response of the government to the foreign provision of humanitarian assistance, which further delegitimized the junta in Western eyes. The new constitution, through various provisions implicated the military as the essential power force in the state delineating that it could not be subject to civilian review, and providing amnesty to any person in the previous administrations for acts committed as part of their official duties.

The purpose of sanctions by both the Democratic Clinton and Republican Bush administrations was specifically regime change; that is, honor the results of the 1990 elections, and give power to the NLD, and then the US could talk to the government. This was obviously a non sequitur. It established in the junta’s view the US as a potential enemy of the regime and created fears (unfounded from a US perspective) of a US invasion.

“Pragmatic Engagement”

When the Obama administration came into power in early 2009, it reviewed US policies toward six areas: Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Palestine, and Syria. The review of policy toward Myanmar (still known as Burma in official circles and the Congress) was intense, and clearly both the US administration and the Burmese junta wanted to alleviate the tensions between the two. Both sent signals of mutual desire for cooperation (e.g., the US signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which it had not done because of Myanmar’s entry in 1997, to which the US strongly objected, and high Myanmar official met with mid-level US officials); but these were insufficient. The Burmese wanted some alleviation of the sanctions regimen, and the US wanted Aung San Suu Kyi freed and all political prisoners released. Neither side was prepared to act first. Senior General Than Shwe, head of state, was said to have personal animosity toward Aung San Suu Kyi, and the U.S, could not act because of internal US political ramifications.

The intensive review of Myanmar policy resulted in high level contacts between the two states, but the Obama administration, which quietly and wisely dropped the call for regime change, adopted a policy that was a compromise based on the US internal political scene. Simply because Burma/Myanmar was not a core national issue, the Obama administration could not use up much political capital in attempting to convince both the Republicans and Democrats in the Congress that the policy ought to be substantively changed. The extensive expatriate Burmese organizations and a wide range of human rights NGOs assiduously lobbied to maintain the sanctions, and they had remarkable access to the leadership of all administrations since 1990.

The result, announced in September 2009, was a compromise of pragmatic engagement. This meant that the US would keep the sanctions policy in place but would have high-level dialogue with the Burmese. The Obama administration recognized that the road to normalization of relations would be long and arduous, but that it should begin. This was politically all that the Obama administration could do given congressional attitudes and the effective lobbying of many civil society organizations.

Since the new US policy was instituted, Myanmar continued down its set path to what it described as “discipline-flourishing democracy”-preparations for the elections and the formation of a “civilianized” government. Because of stringent registration requirements, the NLD decided not to contest the elections, and were legally deregistered in May 2010. But other smaller opposition groups and individuals ran in the elections which were held on November 10, 2010. The results gave the government about 80% of the seats in a variety of legislatures at the national and local levels. Some Western governments and media, as well as the civil society groups, generally claimed that they were a “sham.” This was in error. Flawed as they so obviously were, with the government packing the ballot boxes with absentee ballots, they have resulted in the first elected legislature since 1960, under a civilian government with opposition voices present (though muted). Provincial legislatures, including those in minority areas, have been formed for the first time in Burmese history. This is not insignificant.

Since the formation of the new government on March 30, 2011 under President Thein Sein- former prime minister under the junta, the new Burmese government has made various overtures to economic and social change, calling for real economic reforms, better health and education funding, the elimination of corruption, and better treatment of the minorities. The representatives of some of these reforms have called for an end to sanctions. A poverty alleviation seminar has been held, with the president in attendance, serious discussions on a unified exchange rate are underway, and Aung San Suu Kyi has met with the leadership and has made a public statement indicating she believes the government is interested in real reform. All these are tentative but progressive, developments. She has however, backed an ill-conceived and erroneous NLD statement that since sanctions did not hurt the people, they should be continued. This is disputed by the US Rangoon embassy cable. In addition, the US sanctions regimen has effectively blocked multinational assistance that would have benefited the Burmese peoples; Myanmar receives far less assistance than any country in the region. The sanctions also affect UN Development programs and open the state to Chinese and other Asian investment monopolies. Until 2002, the NLD had called for sanctions. Earlier, Kyi had argued that since she did not institute sanctions, she could not eliminate them, thus sidestepping her critical role in their continuation. She had also been against humanitarian aid, as it would strengthen the military, but she changed her policy on that and on tourism, now advocating appropriate tourism (not the previous total ban) that did not benefit the military.

But many of the overseas civil society groups and the Burmese, as well as influential members of the US Congress, have said that these changes are not sufficient and that the US should further tighten sanctions against the regime, and invoke a UN Commission of Inquiry to look into human rights abuses, of which there have been many. Aung San Suu Kyi has backed that plan but did not endorse any subsequent trials that might be held in its wake. The US has acquiesced to the UN Commission plan, although many in the administration believed the timing of such an inquiry was inappropriate given the fragility of the hoped-for reforms. More sanctions might tip the scale in favor of formidable elements of the military command who are against any reforms and want to see the status quo retained. They could charge that any reform actions by their government would not change US policy, and that it would be better to continue the status quo.

The Future of US Sanctions Policy

In some important sense, Aung San Suu Kyi holds the key to US sanctions policy. The Obama administration- severely weakened after the 2010 US elections, is not in any position to use up its limited political capital on Myanmar, when other more important Asian policy matters are in play. Other states are not supportive of those in the US who want stricter sanctions. Japan is anxious to resume its development assistance, partly to offset Chinese influence. India, even as the world’s largest democracy, will not take action because its perceived interests lie in countering China and in assisting the development of its volatile, rebellious Northeast Region through a planned transport corridor through Myanmar. ASEAN will not condone sanctions, and the Chinese interests are so varied and profound that they will not listen to US arguments that they should change. The US, in any case, has far more important items than Myanmar on their agenda in Asia, including North Korea, the Taiwan straits, trade, and the Chinese currency, among other issues.

The Obama administration has made efforts through informal and formal contacts to see what changes might provide the political rationale for a moderation of the sanctions policy that the president might initiate if the political stars were in alignment. Especially important is the release of political prisoners. It was hoped these efforts might produce results before the end of the Obama administration’s first term. To date, they have proven to be elusive, although continuing rumors exist about the release of at least some of those prisoners, the exact number of which is in dispute.

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the prospect of economic reforms, and the possibility of a major release of political prisoners who are said to number some 2,100, could produce change—a gradual modification of the sanctions policies has already begun in the EU in the spring of 2011 as a result of the modest liberalization in Myanmar under the new government. There will be many in the Burmese exile community and among human rights NGOs that will fight such changes, for some still regard the central, previously acceptable, US policy of regime change as the basis for action. Any placation of the Burmese regime, they might argue, would simply prolong the life of a government elected through illegitimate means, and deny justice to those who have suffered under many acts of violence against the population. At the same time, the proposed reforms in Myanmar are fragile, and there are many high level military who are opposed to any diminution of state and military power, and will use any new sanctions and a UN Commission as justification of their continued hard line, claiming that no matter what the Burmese government does, and whatever positive changes that may be made, these will not satisfy the west, especially the US.

The very positive visit to Myanmar by ambassadorial coordinator Derek Mitchell in September 2011, the encouraging statement by Aung San Suu Kyi after meeting President Thein Sein and a variety of expressed good intentions and beginning reforms have significantly improved the prospects for heightened dialogue and better relations, although some important actions need to take place by the new Myanmar government to give the US administration sufficient political space for changing policies.

A second Obama administration would likely continued to seek means to improve relations with Myanmar, provided Myanmar were to release the political prisoners and that other reforms were in process. A Republican administration might be more reluctant to seek accommodation with the Burmese regime. Yet the US will have to make some important decisions. If political prisoners are released and economic reforms commence, how will the US respond given the internal US base attitude against that government? If no positive response is forthcoming, this will deter improvement in relations. In 2014, it is highly likely that Myanmar will chair the ASEAN group and summit meeting for the first time (they backed down in 2006 when it was their turn in alphabetical order). Perhaps present reforms are in part motivated by that plan. But how will the US respond, and will the US participate in a summit meeting on Myanmar soil?

To the Burmese government, removal of sanctions remains a critical element in improving US relations. Somewhat sidestepping her role, Aung San Suu Kyi was reported to have said that “…she never called for sanctions to be imposed initially, but that she supported those working for human rights who advocated sanctions.” Clearly, Aung San Suu Kyi could play the vital role in alleviating relations. Some continue to advocate sanctions and indeed tightening them is a conceivable political move on the part of the US in the face of years of ineffective results in terms of achieving their goal. Such policy consistency seems inappropriate in terms of the interests of both the Burmese peoples and the United States.

Whether Aung San Suu Kyi will play an important formal role internally in Myanmar is unclear. Thein Sein seems more amenable to such a change than was Than Shwe. But externally it is evident that her views will be highly significant. But any accommodation with the Burmese government will be a disappointment to many of her followers, but it may be the means by which Western and multilateral foreign economic assistance could be reintroduced, which could help alleviate the poverty in which the country is mired.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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