State counselor silent on sanctions

The United States is expected to announce today an extension of its economic and military sanctions against Myanmar, with some revisions, in line with recommendations by the new civilian-led government, according to Western diplomats in Yangon and reports from Washington.

Sanctions are also likely to feature on the agenda when Secretary of State John Kerry visits Myanmar on May 22. The State Department said he would “meet with key leaders in Nay Pyi Taw to signal US support for the new democratically elected, civilian-led government and further democratic and economic reforms”.

The decision by President Barack Obama to keep sanctions in place against the military and more than 100 blacklisted individuals and companies puts State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the unusual position of being a de facto head of government inviting punitive measures against her own country.

In public, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has neither opposed nor supported the continuation of US sanctions since her party’s landslide election victory last November. However during her visit to Washington in 2012 she asked the Obama administration to ease the sanctions in response to the democratic transition put in place by then-President U Thein Sein.

“I think it’s time because it’s time for us to take responsibility for our own country,” she told The Washington Post at the time. She has also said that since she did not initiate them she could not end them.

Shortly after her election victory, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke somewhat ambiguously about sanctions to the same paper, noting they “are not the only thing that matters with regard to progress in this country”. But she also said they may no longer be needed “with a genuinely democratic government in power”.

Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based analyst, said that as the 70-year-old leader is now in the government, her position on sanctions is riskier.

“The decision of Aung San Suu Kyi not to oppose the US renewal of sanctions seems at odds with her administration’s interest in promoting economic growth and jobs,” he said.

“It may reflect an underestimation of the impact of residual sanctions on the broader economy, an over-estimation of the leverage they provide on potential spoilers, or both. It is a risky position when there are so many other, better options available,” he added.

Major US companies in Myanmar and the US Chamber of Commerce have lobbied for the lifting of Myanmar-specific sanctions, arguing they have a broader impact than intended.

Reporting from Washington, Reuters quoted US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, as saying Daw Aung San Suu Kyi supported the extension of US sanctions with some changes. The officials said discussions with her had focused on how to properly target trade restrictions so they do not hurt the country’s overall economy, but keep pressure on military-owned institutions.

Diplomats in Yangon suggested that the state counsellor wanted to maintain a degree of leverage over the Tatmadaw, which maintains considerable powers outside executive control, including three key ministries and the numbers in parliament to block constitutional changes.

The sanctions are due to expire on May 20 under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which the president can extend each year. The sanctions also include a ban on arms sales and imports of rubies and jade.

In recent months the US had already started easing the measures. In December, the Treasury temporarily relaxed trade restrictions by allowing shipments to go through ports and airports for six months that were under the ownership of a blacklisted company.

Reuters quoted congressional aides and US officials as saying that Washington will likely offer more general licenses to specific companies and take some people off the Treasury’s list of “Specially Designated Nationals” targeted for sanctions.

David Steinberg, professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, noted in the Nikkei Asian Review that to renew the sanctions the US president must issue an order indicating that “the actions and policies of the Government of Burma continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”.

“This is bizarre considering that the US has opened a trade office, encouraged responsible investment, and is actively engaged in an economic aid program in the country formerly known as Burma. If one were to take the US statement seriously, its government is encouraging its citizens who are involved in these programs to put their safety in jeopardy by operating in Myanmar,” Mr Steinberg wrote.

Source: The Myanmar Times

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