Sanctions to Take Center Stage During Aung San Suu Kyi’s U.S. Visit

myanmar-assk-east-asian-summit-laos-sept8-2016.jpg Myanmar's State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi (C) attends the East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Laos, Sept. 8, 2016.

UPDATED at 9:21 AM EST on 2016-09-14

U.S. President Barack Obama will discuss the further lifting of sanctions against Myanmar when the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi begins her first official visit to Washington on Tuesday as state counselor and foreign minister.

After meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday, Aung San Suu Kyi is flying to the U.S. to meet with top U.S. officials, including Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and U.S. legislators. She will also go to the United Nations in New York to address the General Assembly next week.

The U.S. maintains more than 100 individuals and organizations in Myanmar on a blacklist, many for their ties to the country’s still powerful military, or because they have been cited for their involvement in drug trafficking or money laundering.

The visit has prompted Shwe Mann, former speaker of Myanmar’s lower house of parliament, to call on Aung San Suu Kyi to urge the U.S. to drop the remaining sanctions.

“We wish that [Aung San Suu Kyi] will bring the rewards of removal or lifting of international sanctions with her foreign trips to the U.K., U.S., and U.N.,” said Shwe Mann, a former top general during the previous military junta that ruled the country until 2011, on a social media post.

Aung San Suu Kyi had supported western sanctions against the country during her 15 years of house arrest as an opposition party leader when the country was under the rule of a military junta.

Shwe Mann quoted an old Burmese saying that “the son comes back shouldering a gold pot,” but in this case, he said, the Myanmar people would like to see Aung San Suu Kyi bring pots of diamonds and gold by urging western countries to lift sanctions on Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma.

He also noted that Myanmar has been kept under restrictive sanctions by the international community that have directly or indirectly impacted the general population.

The Obama administration will consult closely with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to ensure that the sanctions are not preventing economic investment that would help the Myanmar people, the president’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said in a talk at a Washington think tank on Tuesday.

“The view of the government matters a lot to us,” Rhodes told the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Obama hosts Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House on Wednesday.

Burma Strategy Act

Amnesty International urged both the U.S. and the United Nations to remain firm with Myanmar’s nearly six-month-old civilian-led government as it consolidates reforms that unwind the practices of half a century of military rule.

“We have seen encouraging changes as Myanmar eases out from under the shadow of military rule. But there is still a lot more to do to ensure a decisive break with the country’s ugly past of human rights violations,” Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s director for South East Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation on Tuesday to keep the Obama administration focused on human rights issues, national ethnic reconciliation, and constitutional reform in Myanmar, while determining whether to modify or lift the remaining sanctions.

The Burma Strategy Act of 2016 sets “benchmarks and guidelines on sanctions relief” by having the Secretary of State review and make recommendations about modifying or lifting sanctions based on challenges to democracy, good governance, ethnic reconciliation, legal reform, and the treatment of military-owned enterprises, according to a news release issued Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The legislation also authorizes bilateral economic assistance to support civil society organizations, provides humanitarian assistance, conducts limited military-to military engagement between the U.S. and Myanmar, creates a fund to provide incentives for private-sector investment in the country, and calls for a report on the gemstone sector to ensure good governance standards are put in place.

‘Murky’ jade industry

Some rights groups have expressed concern that it is still too early for the U.S. to drop the remaining sanctions, particularly those directed at the military or the resource extraction sector.

Global Witness, a London-based international NGO that exposes corruption and environmental abuse, warned the U.S. not to lift the sanctions, saying that its investigations into the country’s “murky” jade industry are of particular concern.

The industry, worth up to U.S. $31 billion in 2014, has been a target of U.S. sanctions and remains under the control of military elites, U.S.-sanctioned drug lords, and so-called “crony” companies, while local people see almost no benefit, the group said.

“Jade was kept largely off-limits from the former government’s reform efforts, and the industry now stands as one of the key obstacles to progress under the new civilian-led government,” Global Witness said in a press release issued Tuesday.

“The murkiness of the jade trade also poses risks to U.S. companies looking to engage in Myanmar,” it said.

The group recommends that the sanctions be maintained until powerful elites no longer threaten Myanmar’s future.

FDI increases

American foreign investors have so far indicated their confidence in the continued democratic reforms that have occurred under the new Myanmar government, which came to power in April.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) rose to U.S. $900 million during the first five months under new administration and have created about 50,000 jobs in the last three months, Aung Naing Oo, general sectary of the Myanmar Investment Commission, told reporters on Tuesday in the administrative capital Naypyidaw.

Most of the investment has been directed to the manufacturing, telecommunications and real estate sectors, he said.

The U.S. eased some of its economic sanctions against Myanmar in May to promote the Southeast Asian nation’s economic growth and political reform under the new, reform-minded government.

Washington also removed seven state-owned enterprises and three state-owned banks from an official blacklist of companies prohibited from doing business with the U.S., and extended a measure to allow shipments to go through ports and airports in Myanmar, hoping to open up opportunities for trade and for more American companies to invest in the country.

Aung Naing Oo also said that the amount of incoming FDI during the first months of former President Thein Sein’s administration in early 2011 was not this high since he had not yet implemented various social and economic reforms.

The commission expects total FDI for this year to reach U.S. $6 billion, he said.

The U.S. temporarily lifted a ban on trade through Myanmar’s ports in December, a month after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won general elections by a landslide.

The U.S. had previously dropped most trade restrictions against Myanmar after Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government undertook political and economic reforms beginning in 2011, but an embargo remained on several business interests of the junta-era elite, including several key export and import sites.

Reported by Kyaw Min Htun and Win Ko Lwin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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