When the United States reestablished full diplomatic relations with Myanmar in 2012, the Obama administration was optimistic that the once-isolated Southeast Asian country, also known as Burma, was moving steadily along a path toward democracy. The ruling junta had recently turned over much of its power to a quasi-civilian government and had released 1,300 political prisoners. Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest and was soon elected to parliament.
But after three years and two visits from President Obama, Myanmar's progress has stalled. It continues to oppress its stateless Rohingya Muslim population, which has been designated one of the world's most persecuted minorities. The government has also stepped up arrests of political dissidents and journalists. Attempts to reform the constitution, under which the military is automatically allocated a quarter of the seats in parliament, have been blocked.
And with one of the biggest, most closely watched elections just weeks away — with 498 parliamentary seats at stake — the government has banned candidates from criticizing the military on state-run media.
Of course, these actions have prompted some stern statements from State Department officials, and Obama has called the plight of the Rohingya a "most urgent matter." But overall, the U.S. approach has been to praise Myanmar's leaders for their reform efforts so far and to encourage them to do better. That's not working so well. Human rights groups and other experts are skeptical that the elections will be conducted honestly, even with legions of election monitors expected to be on site. They fear the military will intimidate voters, or the government might cancel the elections outright, in areas where the ruling party is unpopular.
Myanmar is a country of strategic significance to the U.S. because of its location between India and China and its long, close relationship with China and North Korea. Despite this, the U.S. must take a tougher stance. When Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel visits this week, he should start by reminding the country's officials that economic sanctions can always be reimposed. For example, the U.S. could add officials implicated in human rights abuses to the Specially Designated Nationals list, barring them from doing business with or getting funds from anyone in the U.S.
American firms with an investment of more than half a million dollars in Myanmar are required to report back on the work they do there, their anti-corruption practices and what steps they have taken to ensure that human rights and workers' rights are maintained. That requirement is set to expire next May. It should not.
These are small steps, but they might help remind Myanmar that better ties with the U.S. require meaningful reform.