By introducing the renewal for another three years of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act in the United States Senate on 12 June, US Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged the wide-ranging reforms that have occurred in Myanmar and highlighted the “remarkable change” in only 18 months as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi went from political prisoner to a member of parliament. For these reasons he announced his support for the steps taken by the administration to ease sanctions.
At the same time, he noted that the Burmese government still had not met all the necessary conditions to justify a complete repeal of the existing sanctions. Numerous political prisoners remain behind bars. The constitution is still undemocratic. The relationship with North Korea remains an issue of grave concern.
The renewal of the act, he argued, would leave intact the ban against the import of Burmese goods “thus maintaining leverage the executive branch can utilise to help prompt further reform”.
He had discussed this with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi only a few days ago “and she told me she believes the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act should be renewed”. Senator Diane Feinstein who co-sponsored the renewal resolution told the senate that she understands that Suu Kyi told Senator McConnell that she “supports renewing the import ban for another year.”
I have no problem with maintaining leverage on the regime, but the senators should ask themselves why it is that the US is now alone in the western world in maintaining an import ban against Myanmar. It is the least effective of all sanctions. It is not a “smart”, well-targeted measure, but is directed generally against the economy and so against the people.
In the case of the US, in the years leading up to the import ban in 2003, more than 80% of imports from Myanmar were garments produced in some 170 factories most of which were owned by non-crony private entrepreneurs, the very backbone in any country of free enterprise and support for liberal reform. No garment factories were owned by the state and in only two did military interests have a minority stake with a South Korean principal.
The senators will also recall that the main effect of the import ban was to make some 40,000 – 60,000 female workers redundant. Suu Kyi is very well aware of this, so it is very surprising, indeed scarcely credible to learn that she agreed with the continuance of the ban. Indeed, at the World Economic Forum Asia meeting in Bangkok recently she made a particular plea to investors for job-creation.
A continuance of the import ban would logically be inconsistent with her declared views. “I want this [investment] commitment to mean quite simply jobs – as many jobs as possible.”
She reinforced this message in her address to the International Labour Conference in Geneva on 14 June when she stressed the problems of youth unemployment. In the circumstances, though Suu Kyi may well have agreed with the senators that now was not the time to lift sanctions altogether, it is simply not credible that she would have specified that she wanted the US to renew sanctions against labour-intensive industries, which is what the continuance of the US import ban represents.
Senator McConnell asked what had caused the regime to initiate democratic reforms and concluded that sanctions “seem to have played an important part in bringing the government around”. Every government official he met had told him that they wanted sanctions removed. He quotes Suu Kyi as saying “very, very confidently” that sanctions have been effective because the government “is always asking for sanctions to be removed”.
I have had the same response from officials. But the reasons given to me were very specific. In the run-up to the November 2010 elections, sanctions had absolutely no effect in deflecting the former military regime from its chosen goal, which was the completion of a seven-stage political road map.
With the elections, stage six was successfully accomplished and military interests have been preserved and protected. Stage seven, which is the “building of a modern, developed and democratic nation”, undoubtedly requires the removal of sanctions which are a serious obstacle to rural development and poverty alleviation.
Sanctions had only a marginal affect on the military leadership because they were cushioned from its effects by the bonanza of natural gas revenues, which in 2011 amounted to some US$ 3.65 billion. But the economic dominance of China in Myanmar, the extent to which the country has fallen behind its neighbours and the dire state of the economy are powerful reasons for changing course and which the west – and even US senators – would surely understand and endorse.
The civilianized government which came into existence on 30 March 2011 needs all remaining sanctions to be removed as soon as possible if they are to give full effect to their economic reform programmes, whose success will also positively affect political reform.
True, as Senator Mitchell said, “no country likes being viewed as a pariah and the Burmese regime seems no different”. That is a credible, but it’s also a minor reason why they want sanctions removed. The main reasons are crystal clear and are not mentioned by the senators at all.
Of all the measures that I would chose to maintain pressure, the continuance of the import ban is possibly the least effective in terms of leverage and the most counterproductive. There may be a perverse logic in its continuance, in the sense that once the Burmese Government has met US conditions, all remaining sanctions would be removed, so from the regime’s point of view, the sooner the better.
But is it in the meantime sensible, through the continuance of a generalised import ban, to inhibit employment in labour-intensive industries like garments and seafood and to hold the population ransom by undermining current, internationally supported programmes of social welfare and poverty alleviation?
I do not believe that Suu Kyi supports this in any way. The senators should not twist her words. If they still feel they need to make a point, why not target selected “Special Designated Nationals” rather than the Burmese people at large?
The decision is not however yet confirmed. The Resolution “S.J. Res 43″ takes effect “on the date of enactment of this Joint Resolution or July 26, 2012, whichever occurs first.”
More importantly, Senator Feinstein reminded the senate that the administration “will still have the authority to waive or suspend the import ban as it has suspended sanctions on investment and financial services if the Government of Burma took the appropriate actions” and that just to let the import ban expire would require new legislation to reimpose the ban, should Myanmar backslide on reform.
The reported decline of textile exports by 30% since 2008 should impel the administration, with Suu Kyi’s support, to sustain job-creation in labour-intensive sectors of the economy. This should be a matter of priority for Ambassador-designate Derek Mitchell to discuss with Suu Kyi as soon as he takes up his post, which is likely to be well before the resolution comes into effect.
- Derek Tonkin is chairman of Network Myanmar and is a retired British diplomat whose last three posts were Vietnam, South Africa and Thailand.
Editor’s note: At the request of the author, Myanmar has been used in this article rather than Burma.