State Department Keeps Its Options Open
Washington is wary about the “irreversibility” of political reform in Burma and is moving carefully in upgrading its relations with the Southeast Asian nation.
On the same day that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a suspension of nearly all financial restrictions on Burma this week, the Obama Administration formally continued its arms embargo and the National Emergency Act authorizing sanctions as needed.
“We will keep our eyes wide open to try to ensure that anyone who abuses human rights or obstructs reforms or engages in corruption do not benefit financially from increased trade and investment with the United States, including companies owned or operated by the military,” Clinton told Burmese foreign minister U Wunna Maung Lwin.
“We will be maintaining the arms embargo, because we want to see amongst the reforms that are taking place a move for the armed forces to be under civilian control,” she added.
Easing U.S. financial sanctions on Burma follows the election to parliament of long-time opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who shares concerns about the future of Burmese reform.
“I sometimes feel that things, that people are too optimistic about the scene in Burma,” Suu Kyi told a video conference hosted by former U.S. President George W. Bush. “You have to remember that the democratization process is not irreversible. I have said very openly that we can never look upon it as irreversible until such time as the military commits itself to democratization.”
Caution Is The Watchword
U.S. officials say they are working with local and international organizations to locate “the spoilers, the bad actors” in Burma that might be trying to block reform in the country.
“We are keeping on the books all legislation and executive authorities that do give us flexibility, if the facts warrant, to tighten sanctions again,” Clinton says.
And the Myanmar Caucus of the Association of Southeast Asian nations also warns against going too fast in normalizing relations with Burma.
Without a clear political settlement with armed ethnic groups, the ASEAN caucus says new investments in Burma “will likely lead to further human rights abuses, land grabbing, corruption and enrich military leaders and their cronies who control most of the country’s wealth.”
“It is ludicrous to reward the current government’s untested reforms by paving the way for a gold rush,” says caucus vice president Kraisak Choonhaven. “Fighting in Myanmar’s ethnic areas continues and many of the ethnic leaders are concerned that these reforms are just a ploy to pave the way for ‘development’ projects on their lands.”
Clinton says a general license for American businesses to invest in Burma comes with the responsibility to be an agent of positive change.
“We’ll expect U.S. firms to conduct due diligence to avoid any problems, including human rights abuses,” she says.
“We expect our businesses to create a grievance process that will be accessible to local communities; to demonstrate appropriate treatment of employees, respect for the environment; to be a good corporate citizen; and to promote equitable, sustainable development that will benefit the people.”
Investors Eager To Do Business
U.S. investors — especially those in timber, mining, and oil and natural gas — are eager to close the gap with European competitors who got a jump on new investment in Burma when the European Union’s suspended its sanctions in April.
Eva Kusuma Sundari, a member of parliament in Indonesia, also is concerned the Obama administration policy on Burma might be “skewed by the loud shouts of big business.”
“The U.S. has the opportunity here to maintain the leverage necessary to ensure reforms continue in the right direction and at the right speed,” she says. “It also has a duty to ensure its companies do not fuel human rights abuses or armed conflict through their investments.
“The appropriate measures, screening processes and legislation must be enacted to ensure that does not happen,” Sundari says.
Lex Rieffel, a global economy and development fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says a flood of sanction-free European and U.S. investments could overwhelm Burma’s ability to keep pace with labor and environmental safeguards.
“To be successful, this has to be done carefully,” Rieffel says. “What is happening right now is that the country is being over-run with visitors. It is being smothered in love. This is making it more difficult for the government to make good policy decisions, and, more importantly, to implement those policy decisions.”
Secretary Clinton says she believes the prospect of economic prosperity is at the heart of the military-led government’s engagement with long-time opponents.
“The generals began to travel, and they began to see that their country was not as developed. It didn’t have as much prosperity. It didn’t have jobs for young people like other countries nearby,” she told a State Department meeting of civil society groups. “Thailand had been under military rule; now it was booming. It was next door.”
Rieffel says Burma will never see that sort of prosperity unless its banking system can process global financial transactions.
“Without the lifting of financial sanctions, this country cannot move forward, cannot progress,” he says. “It cannot do the kinds of things that we have seen done in Thailand, in Vietnam, in Indonesia and the Philippines and so forth. It cannot achieve those levels of success.”
It is not the sanctions impact on financial success that concerns But Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, is not that worried about the possible impact of financial success in Burma.
“We still have numerous political prisoners in jail,” he says. “We have repressive laws that are still on the books. There’s been little change in the way that the Burmese military operates in ethnic areas.
“The situation in the north with the Kachin, and the ongoing war there and the targeting of civilians is a major concern to us,” Robertson says. “So, we’re a bit perplexed about why there is such undue haste to lift such a wide swathe of the sanctions.”
Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin says 28,000 prisoners have been released as part of a general amnesty over the past year, including most of those on lists of political prisoners presented by the European Union and United States.
“There are some remaining from the lists,” he told Secretary Clinton. “They are some prisoners who have criminal offenses, such as murder, rapes, or connecting to terrorist activities.
But the president, in exercising his mandate invested upon him by the constitution, will further grant amnesties when appropriate.”