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Activists denounce ‘atrocious’ decision on sanctions

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and US President Barack Obama speak at the White House on 14 September 2016. (Photo: State Counsellor's Office / Facebook)

Human rights activists, long the staunchest advocates of sanctions targeting Burma’s former military regime and its cronies, have denounced US plans to drop punitive measures against the country, calling the move premature.

“Obama’s pledge to lift the executive orders today and end sanctions against Burma’s military and their companies is an atrocious decision,” said Myra Dahgaypaw, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma.

The decision, announced on Wednesday following a meeting at the White House between President Barack Obama and visiting Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, marks a major break in US policy towards Burma.

For decades, the sanctions served as leverage for Suu Kyi and others calling for an end to military rule in Burma. But on Wednesday, the democracy icon turned political leader came out in favour of their removal, saying it was needed to encourage investment.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Obama after their meeting, Suu Kyi said, “We would like to invite all of you to come to see our country, to see why you should invest there, and see how you can invest there in such a way that you will benefit from it as much as we can.”

But in a nod to concerns about the military’s still strong influence in the country, she also pledged to amend the military-drafted 2008 Constitution and continue with other democratic reforms. “Economic development is just part of the democratic process that we want to encourage in our country. There is still a lot to be done,” she said.

A dark day

This did little to placate activists, however, many of whom greeted the announcement with dismay.

US Campaign for Burma’s Dahgaypaw called the move dangerous, saying it ignores the continuing crisis facing ethnic minorities and civilians in areas of active conflict between the Burmese military and ethnic armed groups.

“There is little to no humanitarian assistance for IDPs in Rakhine [Arakan] State, Kachin State, northern Shan State and now Karen State, but have their cries been heard? Apparently not,” she said in an email to DVB on Thursday.

Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch, also reacted negatively to Wednesday’s announcement, calling it a dark day for Burma.

“In one fell swoop, Obama has let senior military officers, military-connected companies, and crony capitalists off the hook,” said Robertson.

“Not even Obama contends the military has undergone reforms, so why is he lifting pressure against a military that continues to abuse human rights and can remove the civilian government at any time by declaring a state of emergency?”

For critics of the move, the lifting of the sanctions means the loss of an important tool that could have been used to support efforts to resolve rights issue such as the denial of citizenship to the Rohingya in Arakan State — a problem that is now being addressed through a high-profile commission led by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

“Relaxing of sanctions should have been benchmarked to improvements like reforming the Citizenship Act of 1982 and bringing it into line with international standards,” said Robertson, referring to a law hat has rendered most Rohingya stateless.

Improving people’s lives

In Burma’s business community, however, the reaction to the decision to lift sanctions was predictably more positive.

“We welcome the lifting of the US sanctions as it will attract more investment from the US, which is one of the greatest world powers,” said Dr Soe Tun, chairman of the Myanmar Rice Federation, in an interview with DVB on Thursday.

He added that the move would increase investment not just from the US, but also from other countries reluctant to do business in Burma because of how it might affect their dealings with US companies and institutions.

Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst based in Rangoon, also welcomed the lifting of the sanctions, saying it was good news for the ordinary people of Burma.

“The restoration of trade preferences is particularly important in promoting manufacturing, which provides vital jobs. More trade and investment will also improve people’s lives,” he said, adding that there was a misconception that the sanctions targeted particularly corrupt sectors that would benefit the most from their removal.

US sanctions “impacted less on the ‘cronies’, who found ways to circumvent them, than they did on SMEs [small and medium enterprises] who had neither the resources nor the connections to do so,” he said.

Obama’s options

Still, Dahgaypaw and other activists see the lifting of the sanctions as a “free gift” to the Burmese military, which continues to face accusations of human rights abuses.

“The Obama administration had the option to keep some sanctions in place, including maintaining the ban on engaging with military-owned enterprises and keeping targeted restrictions on those identified as rights abusers,” she said.

In a statement released earlier this week, transparency watchdog Global Witness warned that rolling back sanctions before critical reforms could be carried out risked undoing Burma’s fragile progress towards democracy, prosperity and peace.

“Sanctions provide an essential tool for reformers against the powerful elites which still threaten the country’s future; they must not be eased until they’ve served that purpose,” said Juman Kubba, a senior analyst with the group.