By Derek Tonkin
“Have our European and Asian allies gone too far by rushing headlong into suspending all sanctions and immediately boosting assistance?”
Chairman Donald A Manzullo, House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific – 25 April 2012
While the Western world and the Burmese people looked on aghast as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi threatened to derail the reconciliation process by refusing to take the parliamentary oath, the United States let it be known that they were not entirely happy with the decision by almost every other Western country except themselves to suspend or lift economic sanctions against Myanmar. Representative Donald Manzullo clearly thought so at the House Subcommittee hearing on 25 April, while a day later at the relevant Senate Subcommittee Deputy Assistant Secretary Joseph Yun told Chairman Jim Webb that the US had kept in close touch with the EU, but “they are their own boss” and though the US had not made any critical comment on the EU decision, “they had their reasons as we do ours.” Senator Webb has meanwhile written to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for the lifting of all economic sanctions.
The testimony presented to both Subcommittees, the video-cast of the Senate Subcommittee hearing (the House Subcommittee video-cast has not yet been released) and simultaneous lobbying by both US human rights and business organisations indicate that a tough battle is still in progress in the US between those who favour the lash of sanctions, whether targeted or not, and those who see the futility of it all when the US suddenly finds itself following the Western pack after leading the race to engage the reformist regime.
US policy towards Myanmar, as towards Cuba over the years, has tended to be characterized by the concept of “conditionality”, the calibration of the US response to perceived progress in political reform and progress on human rights. Since the civilianized government came to power on 30 March 2011, that response has often been commendably rapid. The UK as well has until recently favoured this approach, with Foreign Secretary William Hague setting out in the House of Commons on 16 January 2012 the conditions to be met for the UK to support the easing of EU sanctions, including “the release of all political prisoners by the 1 April by-elections”. This release did not happen.
The difficulty with what Professor Karl Jackson described to the Senate Subcommittee as this “teacher-disciplinarian” approach is that it is in essence reactive, and not proactive. The strong feeling today in the EU as well as in Canada, Australia and non-EU countries like Norway is that the West cannot afford to wait for changes to take place, that now is the best opportunity since the military coup of March 1962 to assist the restoration of democracy and the rule of law in Myanmar, and that the luxury of a micro-managed and purely reactive response, though politically risk-free in terms of domestic politics, is not sufficiently supportive of the aspirations of the reformist government and the people of Myanmar. It is simply not in the Western interest that the present reform process should fail through lack of Western support.
That is why British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to visit Myanmar at very short notice last month, to see whether Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has in the past favoured sanctions, might be persuaded to accept the suspension of the EU’s restrictive measures, as this was clearly the majority view among EU members. He succeeded, and this was followed by the strongly proactive Conclusions of the European Council which I very much welcome, but had not myself expected. Now that Suu Kyi is a member of the House of Representatives, it hardly seems possible that she could continue her support for sanctions when every Western country apart from the US has either suspended or lifted them.
In this context, Director Adam J Szubin, a graduate of the Harvard Law School, told the Senate Subcommittee hearing that, contrary to what many of us had supposed: “It is as a general matter true that the main categories of sanctions that have been imposed whether by statute or by Executive Order can be lifted by the executive branch, either via licences, or the presidential recision [rescinding] of Executive Orders or the issuance of waivers, typically on a national security of the United States waiver threshold”. Szubin confirmed that was true with respect to the investment ban which can proceed upon a presidential waiver, true with respect to the import bans, and true with respect to the removal of ‘designated’ entities, while in terms of exports of financial services to Burma, Szubin added, “there is no legislative restriction at all, that is purely governed by the Executive Orders that the President has put in place.” The Administration cannot in short hide behind the threat of congressional intervention.
The lifting of sanctions against financial services and transactions is seen by many, and not only in the US, as essential to the sustainable expansion of the Burmese economy in both the commercial and not-for-profit sectors. The denial of access to US financial facilities more than any other US sanction inhibits economic recovery in Myanmar and perpetuates rural and urban poverty. Yet it is in the capacity of the President to remove this restriction at the stroke of a pen.
Indeed, the Administration could go much further in rescinding sanctions if they so chose. There is still a considerable way to go before the Administration would come up against statutory barriers. That the Administration is not yet prepared to move from a reactive to a proactive strategy no doubt reflects concerns at their relations with Congress, the pressures of the human rights lobby and an unwillingness to take political risks in this presidential election year. But a bolder approach is needed. If President Thein Sein, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the EU together with other Western countries are willing to take risks for the good of the Burmese people, the US ought surely to do likewise.
US policy on Myanmar would even seem to be contrary to the declared US “strategic pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific region and their determination to resume their role as a Pacific power. In the case of Myanmar, the US is resisting the will of Asia, even that of China. This is not the way to enhance US influence and advance US interests.
Chairman Network Myanmar
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