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The US$1.1 trillion spending package that US President Barack Obama signed into law on Friday contains new restrictions on assistance to Burma, stipulating that funds allocated to the Burmese government are contingent on Constitutional reform and demonstrated progress towards resolving human rights issues.
The 1,582-page law, which authorises all US spending until October 2014, delineates wide-ranging conditions for engagement with the Burmese government including the unconditional release of all political prisoners, a constitutionally enshrined fair electoral process and observable efforts to bring rights violators to justice.
“Until these issues are addressed in an acceptable manner, some Members of Congress are likely to support the continuation of existing sanctions on Burma, and possibly the imposition of new sanctions,” said Michael Martin, Asian Affairs Specialist for Congressional Research Service, which advises the US legislative branch.
Many of the US sanctions imposed on Burma during the years of military rule have been waived by President Obama in light of the nation’s transition to a nominally civilian government in 2011. President Thein Sein’s administration has been widely praised for reforms including the establishment of a partially elected parliament, to which opposition leader and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi is now an appointed member.
While the changes were quickly rewarded by most Western governments, the new legislation reveals some disillusion among US lawmakers, particularly with regard to Thein Sein’s promise of amnesty for prisoners of conscience, an express condition for the removal of sanctions under several US laws including the Customs and Trade Act of 1990 and the Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts (JADE) Act of 2008.
“Support among Members of Congress for such restrictive language is partially based on a perception that the Thein Sein government has not adequately addressed the political prisoner issue,” said Martin. “The issue remains if there are still political prisoners in Burma.”
Though the Burmese government insists that a series of amnesties — most recently on 31 December last year — has freed all of the prisoners in question, members of a prisoner scrutiny committee created by Thein Sein claim that at least 33 identified political prisoners remain in jail.
In addition to this discrepancy, it has further been suggested that several of Burma’s laws, particularly those concerning peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, could potentially create more prisoners of conscience.
“As long as those Burmese laws remain in effect, the possibility for creating new political prisoners exists,” said Martin. “If new political prisoners are arrested and detained, then the sanctions required by US law would remain in effect.”
Beyond disagreements about politically motivated detention, concern among US lawmakers extends to a profusion of other “shortcomings in the actions of the Thein Sein government and the Burmese military.”
Those shortcomings, said Martin, include the treatment of Rohingya Muslims, restrictive provisions of the 2008 Constitution, alleged ongoing human rights abuse and an unresolved peace process.
Language in Section 7043 of the new law notably restricts engagement with “any individual or organization credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights, including against Rohingyas and other minority Muslim groups.”
As recently as Thursday, new reports of deadly assaults in Maungdaw, Arakan State, began to surface in the international media. The Burmese government denied on Friday that they had any knowledge of related killings. The incident, which reportedly resulted in at least ten brutal deaths, was the latest in a rash of communal strife that has overwhelmingly affected stateless Rohingya Muslims.
While rights groups have accused Burmese authorities of complicity in an anti-Muslim pogrom, the United Nations and foreign diplomats have accused them of negligence.
“Government actions to date have clearly been insufficient,” read a 17 January statement issued by the US Embassy in Rangoon, which urged Burmese authorities to “thoroughly investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the violence, whether civilian or security personnel.”
Regarding how the Burmese government’s response to anti-Muslim violence might alter the fiscal relationship between Burma and the US, Embassy Spokeswoman Sarah Hutchinson told DVB on Friday that, “We don’t have any further comment at this time.”
New financial restrictions on Burma primarily apply to the US Economic Support Fund, which supports programmes in “Restrictive and Rebuilding” countries. These programmes include military assistance, diplomatic expenditures and USAID projects.“Members of Congress are likely to support the continuation of existing sanctions on Burma, and possibly the imposition of new sanctions,” — Michael Martin, Asian Affairs Specialist for Congressional Research Service
Obama did not request funding for Burma under the Foreign Military Financing Program, though a Joint Explanatory Statement issued by congress on Monday says that assistance will be considered on a case by case basis, and will depend on demonstrated progress towards addressing human rights violations and “efforts to bring to justice military officials involved in such violations.”
The full impact of the new restrictions remains unclear; while the legal language reveals some apprehension towards intergovernmental support, enforcement of economic sanctions in the private sector remains problematic.
The US Department of Treasury enforces foreign sanctions by maintaining a roster of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN), which identifies individuals, organisations and companies that US citizens are forbidden to conduct business with. During a 2011 visit to Burma, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to make the SDN list more effective in implementing Burma sanctions.
“Since she made that statement, [the] Treasury has added a few Burmese people and companies to the list, but has also removed some,” according to Martin.
Patterns have emerged in the Treasury’s selection process. While the department has aggressively targeted officials involved in the North Korean arms trade, critics claim that other violators have been systematically overlooked. When two Burmese companies and one military official were added to the SDN list on 17 December 2013 for facilitating weapons trade, Jennifer Quigley of US Campaign for Burma told DVB, “We are again disappointed the US government has singled out Burmese connections to North Korea while continuing to ignore its own stated policy that it would identify and sanction known human rights abusers and their economic supporters.”
Friday’s legislation suggests a new seriousness in addressing these criticisms, by limiting the US government’s own financial collaborators in Burma. Conforming to all of the law’s many and diverse provisions would require tremendous changes by the Burmese government. These changes would entail reforms in civil liberties law, additional and ongoing amnesties, and foreseeably even criminal tribunals.
Perhaps the most audacious request of all is a Constitutional change that could conceivably impact Burma’s 2015 Presidential election. Aung San Suu Kyi has recently rallied citizens nationwide to support the reversal of the controversial Article 59(f), which precludes her bid for the Presidency. The Nobel laureate has gone so far as to suggest that it was drafted for that express purpose.
“Funds appropriated by this Act should only be made available for assistance for the central Government of Burma if such government has implemented Constitutional reforms,” reads Section 7043(b), “in consultation with Burma’s political opposition and ethnic groups, providing for inclusive, transparent, and fair participation in presidential and parliamentary elections in Burma, including as voters and candidates.”