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U.S.-Burma Relations

The United States has no strategic interests in Burma. Since the November 2010 election, a distinct point of view has emerged from some Burma experts arguing that, no matter how fraudulent, the elections represent an important shift in domestic Burmese politics. As the argument goes, this shift might lead to real changes in the future, even if nothing significant occurs immediately. Furthermore, it is claimed that the existing opposition party, the National League of Democracy, is incapable of grasping this opportunity because the group and its leader, Ms. Suu Kyi, have an all or nothing approach. This is what is characterized as the pragmatic engagement theory. Since the Obama administration began its policy of pragmatic engagement in 2009, U.S. relations with Burma have not changed. If proponents of pragmatic engagement are correct, then Burmese leaders should recognize this unprecedented opportunity being offered by the Obama administration and seek to improve relations with the US by demonstrating tangible change. Expectations are high again among diplomats that some elements in the new government are reform-minded and that they deserve to be given more time.

Burma has been relatively isolated ; the passionate and understandable desire which the Burmese have for complete independence led them to leave the Commonwealth and, as a corollary to this, to make themselves ineligible for aid extended to Commonwealth countries. Likewise, in 1953 Burma terminated the arrangements which they then had for aid from the United States Government. The precipitating factor here was involved with the now almost forgotten Chinese Nationalist invasion of Burma at that time and the evidence that aid to these invaders was coming from American sources. There were various other reasons for the termination of the arrangements with the U.S.A., principal among which being an intense desire on the part of the Burmese people to avoid any help, no matter how desirable, if conditions were attached to it.

Burma experienced major political unrest in 1988, when the current military regime seized power and jailed and killed an undetermined number of Burmese citizens. In 1990, the military government refused to recognize the results of a parliamentary election overwhelmingly won by the pro-democracy opposition. Burma also experienced major student demonstrations in 1996, and other demonstrations occurred in August and September of 1998. In May 2003, government-affiliated thugs ambushed a convoy carrying pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in northwest Burma, killing or wounding dozens of pro-democracy activists.

Because of the Burmese government’s chronic and egregious abuses of humanrights and failure to implement the results of 1990 legislative elections, wonoverwhelmingly by the democratic opposition, the U.S. government has imposedeconomic sanctions – including a ban on new U.S. investment, a ban on importsof Burmese goods, and a ban on most exports of financial services by U.S.persons or entities. A number of other Western nations have also imposedeconomic sanctions against Burma. However, the poor business climate is theprimary impediment to foreign direct investment.

On May 20, 1997, by Executive Order 13047, the President imposed economic sanctions prohibiting new investment by U.S. persons or entities in Burma (Myanmar), based on the determination that the Government of Burma's actions were a threat to U.S. national security and foreign policy. The Cohen-Feinstein Amendment to the Foreign Operations Act of 1997 forms the legal basis for the investment ban. Every year, the U.S. Government reviews the sanctions policy. Since imposing the investment ban, the U.S. Government has found no measurable progress toward political liberalization in Burma and the sanctions have been renewed at each interval.

Prior to the imposition of the investment ban, many prominent U.S. investors had already withdrawn from Burma due to a hostile investment climate and disappointing returns. An active anti-Burma consumer movement in the United States and Europe also put investors’ corporate images at risk. Current U.S. federal sanctions allow companies invested in Burma prior to May 20, 1997 to maintain their investments. Very few companies have elected to do so.

In 2003, the President signed into law the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act (BFDA) and issued an accompanying executive order barring the import of Burmese products into the United States, with limited exceptions. The 2003 sanctions also prohibited U.S. persons from providing financial services to Burma, and seized the assets of certain Burmese entities. The 1997 and 2003 economic sanctions joined a number of other sanctions the United States imposed against Burma in 1988, following the military’s crackdown against civilian democracy activists, and in 1990, when the military nullified the results of democratic parliamentary elections.

The United States opposes the provision of international financial institution assistance to Burma, prohibits military sales, denies most bilateral economic aid and commercial assistance programs to the government, bans the issuance of U.S. visas to senior members of the military and government, as well as those identified as impeding Burma's democratic transition and, since 1990, has downgraded our representation in Rangoon from Ambassador to Charge d’Affaires. In addition, the United States continues to engage in vigorous diplomatic efforts to promote political and human rights reforms in Burma.

In September 2007, in light of the Government of Burma's (GOB) long-standing oppression of the Burmese people and in the wake of its use of violence against peaceful demonstrators, the President designated an additional 14 senior Burmese government officials as subject to an asset block under Executive Order 13310. In October 2007, the President announced Executive Order 13348, which expands the authority to block assets to individuals who are responsible for human rights abuses and public corruption, as well as those who provide material and financial support to the regime.

In July 2008, the U.S. Government enacted the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act. The JADE Act prohibits the importation of rubies and jadeite extracted from Burma. It also expands the list of persons whose assets may be blocked by the U.S. Government to include current and former leaders of the Burmese military, State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and the Union Solidarity and Development Association, as well as any person who provides significant economic and political support to those organizations. Immediate family members of those targeted by the JADE Act are also subject to the restrictions.

Due to particularly severe violations of religious freedom, the United States has designated Burma a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act. Burma is designated a Tier 3 Country in the Trafficking in Persons Report for its use of forced labor. Burma was found to have “failed demonstrably” to meet its international responsibilities to control drug production and trafficking during U.S. narcotics certification procedures in the 2010 Majors’ List. These designations subject Burma to additional sanctions.

In September 2009, the Barack Obama administration announced the conclusion of a policy review launched earlier in the year by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The review reaffirmed the United States’ strategic goals in Burma: that the United States supports a unified, peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Burma that respects the human rights of its citizens. The review also concluded that, in addition to tools the United States has long applied to achieve its goals in Burma--sanctions and support for the democratic opposition--it would expand humanitarian assistance and engage in direct, senior-level dialogue with Burmese authorities.

The first senior-level meeting between the United States and Burma under the administration’s new policy took place in September 2009. In November 2009 and again in May 2010, East Asian and Pacific Affairs Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell traveled to Burma for meetings with government officials, leaders of the democratic opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnic minority leaders. Senior-level meetings also took place in December 2010. In April 2011, President Obama nominated Derek Mitchell as Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, as called for by the JADE Act of 2008, and the Senate confirmed him in August 2011.

President Barack Obama welcomed Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to the White House 19 September 2016 and had some good news for her and her country’s struggling economy after decades of isolation. Both leaders acknowledged there is still a lot of work to be done on democratic reforms and human rights issues in Myanmar, but the country has come a long way since Obama visited Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest a few years ago. This will remove more than 100 businessmen tied to the former military regime from a U.S. Treasury blacklist and lift restrictions on Myanmar’s jade and gemstone industry.

The $1.65-billion garment industry is one labor-intensive sector that could benefit. The industry is growing rapidly, but U.S. exports make up less than 10 percent—down from 65 percent before sanctions hit. Political analysts and activists said the decision also puts a greater responsibility on the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to make sure “crony” businessmen improve their practices, which often involved allegations of corruption, land grabs, illegal logging, and the drug trade.

US President Barack Obama has lifted sanctions on Myanmar, saying the Southeast Asian country has made substantial advances to promote democracy. Obama signed an executive order 07 October 2016 that overturned a previous declaration calling Myanmar’s government a threat to U.S. national security. Since historic elections in November 2015 that resulted in the former opposition party winning a majority of the seats in parliament, the president said, the situation in Myanmar has been significantly altered, including greater freedoms for the population and the release of many political prisoners.

The sanctions, imposed 20 years earlier, prevented American firms and foreign investors using U.S. financial services from having any dealings with more than 100 businessmen tied to the former military regime — business tycoons who owned conglomerates that dominated Myanmar’s trade, banking, extractive industries, farming, tourism and airline businesses.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2016 11:56:27 ZULU