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Burmese Reforms Lead to Softening of Foreign Sanctions

April 19, 2012

Daniel Schearf | Bangkok

Political reform in Burma has led some countries to lift decades-old sanctions imposed in response to long-running rights abuses. The European Union is expected to suspend all of its sanctions on April 23, leading some observers to believe the United States may soon do the same.


The United States, Britain, Australia, and some European countries have responded to Burma’s recent elections and political reforms by lifting some visa and financial restrictions imposed for rights abuses.

Earlier this month, British Prime Minister David Cameron made the first visit to Burma by a Western head of state since the military seized power in 1962. He called for all European Union sanctions to be suspended, except for an arms-sales embargo.

Analysts say the British position adds pressure for Washington to suspend a ban on imports and American investment.

US investors

The vice president of Global Policy Programs at the New York-based Asia Society, Suzanne DiMaggio, says American investors, banned since 1997, are eager to access Burma’s rich natural resources and 60 million consumers.

“Do not forget countries like China have already been investing in Burma for years," noted DiMaggio. "And, you know, China stands as Burma’s most important trade partner at this point. And, as we see other countries lifting sanctions and getting into Burma, you know, the United States I think is concerned that it will be late to the game.”

Western nations imposed varying degrees of economic and diplomatic punishments on Burma following military crackdowns on democracy protesters in 1988 and 2007.

Aside from halting weapons sales, they froze assets of Burma’s military rulers and their associates and imposed visa bans to restrict their movements.

The United States put in place some of the toughest sanctions, halting all new investments and imports and restricting financial transactions.

Broad reforms

But in recent years Burma’s President Thein Sein, a former general, surprised critics by overseeing broad reforms. His government eased controls on the media, released hundreds of political prisoners, and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition National League for Democracy to contest the April election.

The Jakarta-based International Crisis Group has long opposed sanctions against Burma because it says the measures hurt regular people more than the ruling elite. ICG Southeast Asia Project Director Jim Della-Giacoma says Washington should immediately lift all sanctions, but it will not be easy.

“The problem in the United States is that many of the sanctions are embedded in law. So, they need new laws to be passed to override them. Some can be subject to a presidential waver. But in a busy election year the United States Congress needs to focus on this policy, and many people think that might be hard to do,” stated Della-Giacoma.

Rights violations

Other analysts and activists argue a slower pace for lifting sanctions is a good idea anyway , because moving too fast could undermine the positive changes in Burma. Despite the reforms, hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail, repressive laws have yet to be repealed, and Burma’s military is still fighting ethnic Kachin rebels.

Rights groups say the military continues to commit gross violations in Kachin state including forced labor, rape, and murder.

Campaigns Manager of the London-based Burma Campaign UK, Zoya Phan, favors keeping sanctions against those industries that benefit the military and elites.

“Some small sanctions can be lifted based on the positive changes taking place in Burma, explained Phan. "But, for the main key sectors such as mining, on gems, and other metals and timbers, I think it is important to keep them to put further pressure on the government in Burma to continue the positive reforms in Burma.”

Many analysts agree suspending sanctions is a good middle path, because they could be easily re-instated if authorities backslide or stall on reforms.

Western governments have long consulted democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi before taking any action on sanctions. She supported sanctions as leverage against Burma’s military governments during her 15 years under house arrest.

But following her election win this month, Aung San Suu Kyi has gradually loosened her position. After meeting with Cameron, she voiced support for suspending, but not yet lifting sanctions.

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