Nine non-governmental organizations have issued a joint letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, highlighting what they called “serious concerns” with his administration’s plans to lift sanctions on Burma as a reward for initial democratic changes in the country.
In the letter issued Tuesday, Human Rights Watch, United to End Genocide, the U.S. Campaign for Burma, and others said that reform in Burma had not gone far enough to warrant the relaxing of sanctions, pointing out that basic political power remains with the country’s military.
“We are concerned that the proposed direction of U.S. policy may not best serve the goal of measured progress toward political reforms in Burma,” the letter read.
“It is imperative for the United States to retain its leverage until real reform occurs.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in early April announced the beginning of “targeted easing” of bans on U.S. financial services and investment in Burma as part of a broader effort to help accelerate economic modernization and political reform.
She said Washington will also open up programs for aid, health, and education in Burma and set in motion plans to have a U.S. Ambassador in Naypyidaw, restoring full diplomatic relations after a 20-year gap.
In Tuesday’s letter, the NGOs praised Burmese President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government for taking “positive steps” since assuming power from the former military junta last year in March, including April 1 by-elections which saw the opposition National League for Democracy take nearly all the seats up for grabs in parliament.
And they offered support for the Obama administration’s position of gradually relaxing sanctions in a way that is “tied to progress” in Burma.
But the group said it was concerned that Washington was proceeding in a manner which it believes “will undermine those goals.”
“We strongly believe that any further movement to relax the current financial transactions and investment bans be sequenced and timed in a manner that reflects actual additional progress toward the necessary political reforms and progress to improve human rights in Burma,” the letter said.
Specifically, the letter urged Obama to update the U.S. Treasury’s Specially Designated Nationals list before relaxing financial transactions and investment bans in Burma, in order to ensure that certain individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses, corruption, and obstruction to reform do not benefit from U.S. business activity.
It called on Washington to work with civil society and ethnic nationality leaders in Burma to develop binding standards for U.S. companies doing business there, and then lift sanctions for only a few sectors based on recommendations from those Burmese interests, as well as from the U.S. Treasury.
The group also asked the administration to more effectively communicate its policies to Congress with the understanding that current sanctions relaxations are contingent and should continue to be executed by waivers—not legislative change.
Once these measures have been taken, it recommended only lifting a ban on financial transactions while simply adjusting a ban on investment. Doing so, the group said, would allow for the exemption of certain sectors after the U.S. government can determine whether investment in those sectors would truly benefit the people of Burma.
In addition to its recommendations for the gradual lifting of sanctions, the group also listed a number of outstanding issues in Burma which the U.S. should continue to promote, although it did not specify that they should be linked to further action on the relaxing of restrictions.
It specified the release of all remaining political prisoners, ending human rights violations in conflict areas, ending constitutional provisions that empower the military over the civilian government, reform of the judicial system, and providing freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.
The group also called for the Burmese government to allow the formation of labor unions and NGOs, ensure the safe return of exiles and refugees, provide greater economic transparency, and create a climate conducive to free and fair national elections in 2015.
‘End rights violations’
Aung Din, Executive Director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, and United to End Genocide President Tom Andrews, both of whom testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday about U.S. policy toward Burma, pointed out the dangers of lifting sanctions too soon.
“While the international community lauds the ‘positive changes’ taking place in Burma, many have ignored the ‘negative changes’: the escalating atrocities the Burmese Army continues to commit against the Kachin and legalized land confiscation laws,” Aung Din said in a statement Wednesday.
“Burma’s changes have been ‘one step forward and two steps back’.”
And Andrews, who recently returned from a trip to Burma’s Kachin State where tens of thousands have been displaced by Burmese army attacks, further cautioned Washington that risks remain high.
“The issue of rolling back sanctions on Burma could be a matter of life and death for tens of thousands now under siege by the Burmese military. Any changes should be linked to specific action by the Burmese government, starting with an end to the ongoing human rights violations.”
The letter from the group of nine NGOs comes on the heels of an initiative by corporate interests encouraging Obama to ease restrictions on private investment across all sectors of the Burmese economy.
European Union officials announced Monday that they would suspend trade, economic, and individual sanctions against Burma, which target more than 800 companies and 500 people, for one year before further review, while an arms embargo will remain intact.
Canada and Australia have also moved to ease sanctions on Burma in recent days.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.