While many in Myanmar’s business communities welcomed the news that the U.S. will lift economic sanctions against the country, some journalists and ethnic and civil society groups took a more critical stance, apprehensive about the move’s effect on human rights.
The announcement was made during the visit of State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi’s to Washington where she met with U.S. President Barack Obama and asked him to drop the remaining sanctions.
The U.S. said it was ready to lift the economic sanctions and restore preferential trade benefits to Myanmar. The U.S. also dropped Myanmar from inclusion under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1997, which allows American presidents to annually declare the Asian country in a state of national emergency.
Myanmar businessmen, government officials, and those who work in Myanmar’s huge garment sector greeted the announcement with enthusiasm, believing it will usher in a new era of deepened trade ties with the reinstatement of Myanmar to the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) in November.
The preferential trade program for developing countries eliminates duties on imports in roughly 5,000 product categories.
The U.S. removed the Myanmar from the GSP in 1989, a year after a brutal military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.
Myat Thin Aung, chairman of the Hlaing Tharyar, the country’s largest industrial zone, told the online journal The Irrawaddy that exporters are happy about the move.
“We’ve been waiting a long time to receive this benefit from the U.S.,” he was quoted as saying, adding that the restoration of Myanmar to the GSP will boost the country’s garment, agriculture, fisheries, and export sectors.
Despite the lifting of sanctions, several restrictions will remain in place, according to a U.S. State Department press release issued Wednesday. They include a visa ban barring some former and current members of Myanmar's military from traveling to the U.S. and limitations on foreign assistance to the military.
The national army is still at war with several ethnic armies in Myanmar, even as Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, has made peace talks and national reconciliation a central policy of her nearly six-month-old administration.
Onus now on the government
Not everyone in Myanmar was happy about the announcement.
In an opinion piece, Aung Zaw, founding editor of The Irrawaddy, wrote that although many cronies who are on the U.S. “blacklist” list will soon be removed, it’s still unclear who will remain under restrictions.
More than 100 individuals and organizations from Myanmar are on an official U.S. blacklist of entities prohibited from doing business with the U.S. Many of them have ties to the country’s former military junta and have been cited for their involvement in drug trafficking, money laundering, and illicit trade in gemstones.
“To put it simply, removing them from the U.S. sanctions list doesn’t necessarily mean these cronies and criminals are clean,” Aung Zaw said. “Now, the onus is on the Burmese government and State Counselor Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi to hold them accountable and begin a process of rehabilitation so that it matches her repeated aphorism that she will introduce rule of law in the country.”
“Indeed, Burma’s notorious drug barons, arms dealers, and businessmen associated with the military generals have all enriched themselves” while the country was ruled by a military junta for 50 years until 2011, Aung Zaw wrote.
Ethnic civil society organizations (CSOs) were also displeased with Obama’s announcement about lifting the sanctions. Some of them had urged the U.S. to maintain the sanctions in the run-up to Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit.
The CSOs have expressed concern over continued human rights abuses by the country’s national military in areas where troops are fighting armed ethnic groups as well as over the failure of the government to grant citizenship to the stateless Muslim Rohingya—an issue now being addressed by a special advisory commission.
Many Burmese refer to the Rohingya as “Bengalis” because they consider them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The country’s Buddhist majority has long subjected them to persecution and attacks and denied them basic rights, including citizenship. About 120,000 Rohingya reside in displaced persons camps in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state following as a result of communal violence in 2012.
The CSOs had submitted a written request dated Sept. 12 that the U.S. maintain targeted sanctions on the military and its related entities until it complies with democratic norms and respects human rights. In areas where fighting has occurred, the Myanmar military has been involved in civilian killings and sexual assaults and has forced villagers to serve as porters.
“[T]here remain a number of pressing issues threatening the stability of the country and its most vulnerable people,” the letter said. “These issues are deeply concerning as they include the severest of human rights abuses, and progress on these dire matters should be required to lift further sanctions.”
Human rights progress at risk
International rights groups continue to chime in on the issue as well, arguing that lifting sanctions on Myanmar puts human rights progress there at risk.
“Lifting all sanctions now will embolden the Myanmar military and its partners,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Southeast Asia. “This decision was hasty and fails to recognize political realities on the ground.”
One Washington legislator picked up on the Rohingya issue, expressing displeasure with comments Aung San Suu Kyi made during a breakfast meeting on Wednesday with Vice President Joe Biden.
The group encouraged the U.S. Congress to maintain targeted sanctions “to support the promotion and protection of human rights and civilian leadership in Myanmar.”
Senator Bob Corker (T-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a press statement saying he was “somewhat appalled” by what he called “dismissive reactions” to human trafficking concerns regarding the Rohingya.
“While we certainly appreciate the work Aung San Suu Kyi has done to ensure a democratic transition in Burma, I am somewhat appalled by her dismissive reaction to concerns I raised this morning about the problem of human trafficking in her country,” he said.
“After witnessing her lack of regard for Burma’s dismal track record on this issue, I plan to pay very close attention to her government’s efforts to prevent innocent human beings from being trafficked and sold into forced labor and sex slavery,” he said.
Convention Against Torture
Meanwhile closer to home, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a nonprofit human rights organization based in Mae Sot, Thailand, sent a letter to Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday, urging her to sign the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture (CAT) to stop authorities from abusing people.
During the previous government’s administration, NLD lawmaker Aung Moe Nyo submitted a proposal in the upper house of parliament for Myanmar to sign the international human rights treaty that aims to prevent torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment worldwide.
Lawmakers had approved the measure, but former president Thein Sein’s government did not follow through.
The AAPP’s letter also said that Myanmar’s signing of the convention would indicate that the new government, which came to power in April, has made working on human rights a priority.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.