The move prohibits US businesses and individuals from investing in Burma or doing business with military, government officials and any others associated with repression of the democracy movement since the mid-1990s.
In a statement issued by the White House, Obama noted the significant progress the Burmese government has made in certain areas, but cited ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas, particularly Arakan State, as reasons for the renewal of sanctions, as well as the continued role of the military in Burma’s political and economic activities.
“The Government of Burma has made significant progress in a number of critical areas, including the release of over 1,100 political prisoners, progress towards a nationwide ceasefire, the legalization of unions, taking steps to improve the country’s labor standards, and allowing greater freedom of association and expression,” wrote the US president to the speaker of the US House of Representatives and the president of the Senate on 15 May. “In addition, Burma signed an Additional Protocol to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, a significant step towards supporting the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.”
He continued, however, that: “Despite great strides that Burma has made in its reform effort, the situation in the country continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States. The political opening remains nascent, and concerns persist regarding ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas, particularly in Rakhine [Arakan] State, and the continued role of the military in the country’s political and economic activities.”
Obama said the US remains committed to supporting and strengthening Burma’s reform efforts to ensure that the democratic transition is “sustained and irreversible”.
“By renewing US investment sanctions, President Obama is recognizing the perpetuation of abuse and corruption by the Burmese government that disenfranchise and harm Burma’s people,” said US Campaign for Burma (USCB) Policy Director Rachel Wagley. “The US administration is sending a strong message that the Burmese government’s persecution of ethnic minorities, political backsliding on crucial reforms, and drafting of new repressive laws will not be tolerated.”
USCB led a coalition of 29 human rights groups and NGOs earlier this month in urging the US president to continue the country’s “national emergency” with respect to Burma, an ongoing policy first enacted in 1997 which listed Burma, then ruled by the former military junta, as being of special concern as an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the US”.
Although most Western countries have allowed economic sanctions against Burma to lapse due to policies of reform undertaken by the Thein Sein administration since it took office in March 2011, the US has maintained limited investment sanctions targeting the Burmese military and those closely associated with it.
The US has taken particular issue with the Burmese government’s alleged military links with North Korea, and the armed forces’ continued presence in the Burmese political arena, where it is appointed 25 percent of seats in both houses of parliament. With a 75 percent majority needed to rescind or amend any constitutional clause, the military effectively controls veto power of any amendments to the Constitution and to the passing of any parliamentary act. The US has backed the opposition National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for the 2008 Constitution to be amended whereby the military would no longer have a stranglehold over the parliament and the Constitution.
The European Union has scrapped economic sanctions on Burma except for a longstanding arms embargo. The UK last year announced it was offering military training to the Burmese armed forces despite protests by UK-based NGOs such as Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) and other rights groups.
“Until Burma’s constitution and laws are changed, training the Burmese army to respect human rights is likely to be as effective as trying to train a shark not to eat fish,” said BCUK’s Mark Farmaner.
On Friday, the UK defended its policy of engagement with the Burmese army.
“The Burmese military remain a core political force in Burma and will be key to the process of political reform. It is important to engage the military and encourage them to support reforms. It is only through engagement with all actors, including the military, that we will see greater democracy in Burma,” said acting Embassy spokesperson Nicola Righini.
Speaking to DVB last week ahead of the decision to renew sanctions, the US Embassy’s public affairs officer in Rangoon, Satrajit Sardar, said, “We appreciate the views of all those working to support ongoing democratic reforms in Myanmar. Free and open exchange of ideas is essential for a healthy democracy and a model for transitioning countries around the world. Through the easing of sanctions and increased engagement, the United States continues to acknowledge the important changes the Union Government has made, and encourage and empower the government and the people of this country to continue on the path of political and economic reform.
“In consultation with Congress and key stakeholders, we have moved from general, broad restrictions to a more calibrated and limited approach. At the same time, due to ongoing human rights concerns and the need for ongoing security sector reforms, the United States continues to retain sanctions against certain entities.”
Shortly after visiting Burma in 2012, President Obama lifted a 1996 ban on military officers and their business associates receiving visas for the USA.