Myanmar wins US nod at last, but there’s more work to be done

Published on September 18, 2016

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

The China Post – September 18, 2016

After two decades of economic sanctions on Myanmar, the U.S. has decided to lift them. The announcement was made following a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Myanmar’s State Counselor-cum-Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House on Sept. 14.

For many in Myanmar and the U.S., the lifting of economic sanctions is a win-win policy for both the Obama and Suu Kyi administrations.

The Obama’s decision is partly a recognition of the democratic progress made by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and a view to strengthening bilateral relations between the two nations, particularly in economic field.

U.S. President Obama said, “The United States is now prepared to lift sanctions that we have imposed on Burma for quite some time … it is the right thing to do in order to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government.”

The Obama administration had eased some sanctions against Myanmar earlier this year to support political reform but maintained most of its economic restrictions with the aim of penalizing the ones it believes are hampering the democratically elected government.

Since long before her travel to the U.S., there was speculation as well as anticipation that the issue of sanctions would be a major agenda for discussion. Washington’s decision to remove sanctions came after the visiting Myanmar State Counselor Suu Kyi made a demand for its removal.

Though the details have not been outlined yet, the changes likely to be seen are the reinstatement of Myanmar to the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). This provides duty-free treatment for goods from poor and developing countries, allowing duty-free import of some 5,000 products.

Myanmar was removed from the GSP benefits in 1989 following pro-democracy uprisings a year earlier that were brutally suppressed by the ruling military junta.

End of ‘national emergency’

Lifting of economic sanctions will also remove a “national emergency” designation on Myanmar that had been in place for two decades. This will allow the lifting of sanctions that had prevented broad economic investment in the country.

Reinstating the GSP benefits and the removal of national emergency tag will be mutually beneficial. It will give the U.S. businesses and non-profit organizations greater incentive to invest and bring the American people, especially the business community, closer to Myanmar.

In anticipation of this development from Washington as well as from Suu Kyi’s trip to the UK, the Myanmar government recently formed a committee dedicated to ridding Myanmar of its U.N. designation as a Least Developed Country (LDC), which will require progress on average income and economic vulnerability.

Myanmar has been on the LDC list since 1987 and to come out of this category requires the country to improve on three areas — gross national income per capita, the human asset index and the economic vulnerability index. Naypyitaw needs to fulfill this requirement at two successive triennial reviews.

Moreover, while Suu Kyi was in Washington, the Myanmar government was making a push to overhaul rules on new foreign investment with a view to attracting more investments in the country.

In order to address decades of its economic woes, the NLD government has taken a pragmatic policy or what some call it as ‘non-aligned policy’ by strengthening ties with the world’s major powers, such as China, the U.S., the UK, and India.

In a step toward convincing the Western democracies, particularly the U.S., Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD government took two strategically important steps before Suu Kyi began her journey.

The first was holding the highly vaunted 21st century Panglong conference where the Myanmar government was seeking to secure peace and reconciliation with the country’s ethnic minorities.

The second was the formation of a nine-member commission in an attempt to find a sustainable solution to the complicated issues between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state. The commission is headed by former U.N. Secretary-General and Nobel laureate Kofi Annan. Members of the commission visited Myanmar just days before Suu Kyi began her trip to the U.S.

The U.S. government has made resolving ethnic and religious minority issues as one of the conditions to lift sanctions and normalize relations with Myanmar. Though it is still too early to tell whether the 21st Panglong conference and the Annan-led state advisory commission would bring peace and stability in the country, such initiatives of the NLD government is seen and recognized by the Obama administration as positive and important steps toward attaining a successful democracy.

Criticism

But not that everyone is happy with Suu Kyi’s approach as well as the U.S. lifting of sanctions on Myanmar. On Sept. 12, a group of 46 non-governmental organizations circulated a letter they wrote to Obama expressing concern about the possible lifting of sanctions while human rights abuses by the military and against Rohingya Muslims persist.

Suu Kyi has also received her share of criticism from some quarters for not doing enough to address the plight of the Rohingyas.

Though many have welcomed the decision of the U.S. government, critics see the lifting of sanctions as a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of people who have continued to suffer in the hands of the Myanmar military or by the inadequate action of the NLD government. Those critics may find a solace in that Washington will retain some sanctions that are targeted toward the military establishment, especially the longstanding arms ban.

Because of its special power, including the reserved 25 percent of seats in all legislatures and that of three powerful cabinet portfolios — home, defense and border affairs — it would be an unwise decision on the part of the American government to completely remove all sanctions in its entirety.

Similarly, while the Myanmar army continue to launch offensive attacks against the country’s ethnic armed groups coupled with the military’s unwillingness to give up its special power, it would be a disgrace for Suu Kyi and her NLD government to ask for the lifting of arms embargo.

Suu Kyi’s pragmatism and the Obama administration’s desire to open up its economic frontiers in this Southeast Asian region will undoubtedly yield mutual economic benefits to both countries. It was Suu Kyi who asked for U.S. sanctions when she was under house arrest, and now it is she asking for its removal.

Regardless of what benefits the lifting of sanctions may bring, Washington and Naypyitaw need to work together in addressing some of the most important challenges Myanmar is facing today — cessation of armed conflicts across the country, building a federal system that equally respects the rights of every citizen, establishing a government where the civilian authorities has control over the military, and the sensitive but crucial Rohingya issue.

Washington should continue to use both carrots and sticks in dealing with the Myanmar military. While maintaining an open door policy with the new civilian government, Washington needs to continue speaking out for the rights of the people whose fundamental rights are abused and violated.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. His writings (books and articles) have been widely published in over 30 countries in five continents — Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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