Much has changed in Myanmar since 1997 when President Bill Clinton, invoking emergency powers, put in place the first of many sweeping economic sanctions against a military government he accused of large-scale repression and called a threat to the security and foreign policy of the United States.
Today, that once hermetic Southeast Asian country is a fledgling democracy, the military having relinquished much of its power — although only partly and tentatively. The transition has been peaceful and the government that has emerged is making changes and opening the country up to the world. Its de facto head is Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won the first elections but who is is barred by the constitution from serving as president.
The Obama administration has done much to reward Myanmar, also known as Burma, for its transformation. The White House restored full diplomatic relations in 2012 and rolled back many of the sanctions. Most significantly, U.S. companies may now do business with companies in Myanmar, with some exceptions. Suu Kyi, in her official role as “state counselor,” will meet with Obama in Washington on Wednesday and later in the week with Congressional leaders.
One of the chief issues at Suu Kyi’s meetings will be whether the remaining American sanctions should be lifted. They should not. Myanmar remains a complicated and delicate work in progress.
Of course, the U.S. hopes to pull Myanmar fully into its own trading orbit, at a time when competition with China is intensifying. But the military continues to hold too much power in Myanmar. It is permitted to appoint 25% of Parliament, to control three key ministerial posts and to dissolve the Parliament in an emergency. Most of the remaining sanctions target the military. Sanctions bar U.S. companies from involvement with military-controlled businesses and ban the importing of jade and gemstones (which are generally sold by military-run companies or their cronies). Additionally, U.S. companies may not do business with certain designated individuals in Myanmar involved in human rights abuses, drug trafficking or dealings with North Korea.
Allowing U.S. companies to do business with military-owned conglomerates in Myanmar is not the way to grow that country’s economy. Nor should the U.S. drop a requirement that U.S. companies in Myanmar file reports on their anti-corruption efforts and the steps they have taken to ensure workers’ rights.
And as Secretary of State John Kerry said in May, lifting remaining sanctions should rely on a substantial revamping of the country’s constitution.
Suu Kyi herself has yet to take steps to alleviate the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, many of whom are confined to squalid displaced-persons camps and all of whom have been deprived of a rightful path to citizenship.
The U.S. has already rewarded Myanmar for its significant progress. But further reforms are necessary before the U.S. offers more rewards.