Myanmar’s parliament on Monday criticized U.S. sanctions leveled against a leading lawmaker from President Thein Sein’s ruling party, saying the decision to blacklist him could damage bilateral relations.
The declaration, which came two days ahead of a visit to Myanmar by U.S. President Barack Obama, said the sanctions brought last month against Aung Thaung undermined the efforts of lawmakers to bring reconciliation to the country after decades of military rule.
Parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, who is head of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said the sanctions had smeared the image of the country’s parliament.
“U Aung Thaung is [a parliamentary] representative,” he told lawmakers at Monday’s session.
"The [parliament] objects to the [sanctions] and denounces those who did this as well as their actions,” he said.
Shwe Mann said the blacklisting of Aung Thaung, a former minister in the previous military junta, could throw a “negative” light on the dignity of the legislature and hamper “national reconciliation and the good relations between the United States and Myanmar."
Attack on opposition
On Oct. 31, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted Aung Thaung—an MP from Myanmar’s Mandalay region—for “intentionally undermining the positive political and economic transition” in Myanmar, saying he was implicated in previous attacks on the country’s democratic opposition.
Aung Thaung was the former leader of a pro-military group believed to have carried out a 2003 attack against a convoy of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) that included the party’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Several members of her entourage were killed in the attack.
Washington’s action froze any assets held by Aung Thaung within the United States and prohibits Americans from transacting or doing business with him.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the opposition leader in parliament and whose party did not object to the motion denouncing the blacklisting of Aung Thang, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that her party had not pushed for the sanctions against the MP.
She said the NLD has been committed to bringing peace to the country since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in 2011.
“[These sanctions] has nothing to do with the NLD—we were not aware of this either, and only found out only after [the U.S.] had made the announcement,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi said that she had “no intention of revenge” against Aung Thaung—the former industry minister under the former junta—or other members of the USDP, and said that the NLD is only interested in negotiating with the ruling party.
“While we are working on national reconciliation, I'm not too interested in things like this that took place in the past. It's not going to help anyone,” she said.
Local media quoted Ba Shein, an MP from the ethnic Rakhine National Party, as saying that the bill to formally condemn the sanctions had passed in parliament without any objections “because everyone knows it wouldn’t make a difference” to oppose it and that it would have been approved anyway.
The proposal denouncing the U.S. was put forward by an MP from the military-backed USDP.
Ba Shein said that while it might be justifiable for the parliament to denounce the blacklisting, “we believe the sanction is directed against Aung Thaung as an individual, so it’s unnecessary for the legislature to get involved.”
Aung Thaung, whose family has extensive business interests in Myanmar, told reporters recently that the sanctions would not affect him and he has no political ambition.
Washington has lifted most of its sanctions against Myanmar following substantial democratic reforms introduced by Thein Sein’s administration, but restrictions remain against some individuals and companies which are banned from doing business with Americans or owning assets in the U.S.
Observers have suggested that pro-government forces similar to the group formerly led by Aung Thaung could be behind recent mob violence by Buddhist extremists against minority Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state which the West believes could threaten the country’s democratic transition.
Aung Thaung has denied any involvement in the clashes.
Barack Obama, who is currently in China attending Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, will travel Thursday to Myanmar to join the East Asia and U.S.-ASEAN summits in the capital Naypyidaw.
He would also hold a bilateral meeting with Thein Sein, before traveling to Yangon Friday to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and participate in a town hall meeting with Southeast Asian youth leaders.
Reported by Ko Win Naung Toe, Ko Myo Thant Khine and Ko Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Than Than Win. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.