US sanctions keep pressure on Myanmar military


President Obama has tried to improve relations with Myanmar. Source: Wikimedia

Washington plans to renew the bulk of its sanctions against Myanmar when they expire next week, but will make some changes aimed at increasing investment and trade, according to US sources.

An announcement on extending much of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act is due next week ahead of a visit to Myanmar by US Secretary of State John Kerry on May 22, government sources said.

The US Treasury has relaxed sanctions against Myanmar by issuing licences that give firms and investors exemptions to sanctions which are targeted at more than 100 individuals and businesses, including some of most affluent business leaders.

Observers believe changes to sanctions will offer the private sector more breathing room while maintaining pressure on the armed forces.

US lawmakers from both parties are watching closely and could move to clamp down on Myanmar if they believe the White House is moving too quickly.

In April, Senators Cory Gardner and Ben Cardin, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Foreign Relations Asia Subcommittee, expressed concern about Myanmar’s human rights in a letter to Kerry.

“Like you we want to ensure that the US is Burma’s strongest supporter on its road to democracy,” the senators said in a joint letter.

The US authorities would now probably offer more general licences to specific companies, and take some people off its list of “specially designated individuals”, Washington insiders said.

Washington began easing trade and financial sanctions after military leaders launched reforms that led to a quasi-civilian government being formed in 2011.

In December, the Treasury temporarily allowed all shipments to go through its ports and airports for six months.

It is Kerry’s first visit to Myanmar since democratic elections in November.

The military retains a profound grip on power with the constitutional right to appoint the ministers of home affairs, defence and border affairs. Meanwhile, 25 per cent of the parliament is set aside for military representatives, ensuring the armed forces can veto any changes to the 2008 constitution.

Unnamed US officials said State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto prime minister, supported the extension of US sanctions with some alterations. Her apparent focus had been to target trade restrictions so they did not hurt Myanmar’s development but she wanted to keep pressure on kleptocratic, military-owned institutions, sources said.

“We are looking to take steps to demonstrate our support for the new democratically elected government of Burma … and that we’re taking the necessary steps to ensure that they succeed, that they can carry on economic developments and reforms,” a senior member of the Obama administration said.

“At the same time we want to do that in a smart, measured way that gives us a range of options and flexibility to respond appropriately going forward.”

President Barack Obama is keen enhance relations with Myanmar to help counteract China’s deep influence. The nation’s fast-growing economy is seen as a key market as it opens up. Myanmar controls the only land routes between India, Southeast Asia and China, giving it unique geo-strategic significance.

Peter Kucik, a former senior sanctions adviser at the US Treasury, said although some banking restrictions had been relaxed by the US since 2012, transactions with Myanmar were still cumbersome. Most US tourists still find their ATM cards do not work in the union.

“I suspect the changes that get announced all drive at the same end goal: which is to promote and make easier the trade and business relationships between the two countries and encourage continued reform while minding concerns,” Kucik explained.