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Pre-conditions necessary to lift sanctions against Burma


(Commentary) – Knowing that sanctions without engagement are not effective or doomed to failure, the Obama administration adopted conditional engagement – a carrot and stick approach – to pressure the Burmese government towards democratic reform. 

They signal clearly that America is not going to write a blank check to Burmese generals, but they must earn it with concrete actions on the ground addressing conditions set by America.

Burmese President Thein Sein greets U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photo: MizzimaIn line with his policy, a series of high-level meetings between the Burmese government and U.S. have taken place. Seeing “flickers of progress” towards democratic reform under President Thein Sein, President Obama recently dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma to conduct a two-day, fact-finding mission to explore “whether the United States can empower a positive transition in Burma and begin a new chapter between our two countries.”

After Clinton’s visit, the main policy question debated among Burma watchers is whether or not Washington should lift sanctions against Burma. As an exiled citizen, understanding that America’s goal in imposing sanctions against Burma is to alter the repressive policies of the military regime, I would be uncomfortable with lifting sanctions against the country just yet.

For obvious reasons, the new quasi-civilian government led by general-turned-President Thein Sein has been courting the United States to lift sanctions. In his op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Thein Sein’s office director, Zaw Htay, wrote, “Washington and others must change their dual-track policy toward Myanmar if they want it to become a democratic country as measured by their values and norms… Financial sanctions must be lifted and upgrades made to public education and the health care sector.”

“If Burma fails to move down the path of reform, it would continue to face sanctions and isolations,” said President Obama in announcing his decision to send Clinton to Burma at a conference of Asian-Pacific leaders in Bali, Indonesia. The fact that Obama is very cautious in dealing with the new Burmese quasi-civilian leadership makes me feel confident that his administration is not going to make a strategic blunder.  

As a democracy activist and dissident myself, I welcome the positive steps taken by the Thein Sein administration – easing the restrictions on media, releasing some political prisoners, holding high-level meetings aimed at resolving conflict between Minister Aung Min and leaders of the armed ethnic opposition, and amending electoral law allowing the party of Aung San Suu Kyi to re-enter politics. But it is too premature to contemplate lifting sanctions.

Let me list the two fundamental conditions before which America – and indeed, all countries -- should consider lifting sanctions.

No sanction should be lifted unless the actions taken by the ruling quasi-civilian government reach a point of no return to authoritarianism. We should be absolutely sure first that the steps taken towards democracy must be credible and irreversible.

To demonstrate this, the new government should mandate a cease-fire and cease its military hostilities against armed ethnic opposition groups. With respect to this condition, actions speak louder than words.  While trying to strike peace deal with some armed groups, in line with their policy of divide and conquer, the military regime usually ratchets up its offensive against the remaining armed groups refusing to accept the government’s terms and conditions. At this moment, the military government is still launching its full military onslaught against some ethnic opposition armed groups – especially against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Unless the government stops its military offensive against these armed opposition groups and signs a nationwide cease-fire agreement, no relaxation of sanctions should be on the table, to say nothing of lifting them altogether.

Beyond this first key measure, sanctions should remain in place as long as the semi-authoritarian regime controls the legislative, administrative, and judicial functions of the new government. In addition, media must no longer be subject to censorship, full influence and control.

As a forward strategy, Washington has to skillfully and diplomatically bring China to the table. Because of the Burmese regime’s heavy reliance on China for its survival, China undoubtedly has enormous leverage.

China has been engaging with the current regime despite the fact that China shares many of America’s concerns over Burma; China will not want to see the escalation of political crises to a point where more refugees will flow into China, creating cross-border chaos.

Finally, the discussion as to whether or not China and America have competing interests in Burma is a dialogue I do not find productive. Undeniably, both have interests there. But to engage in a frivolous discussion of national interest is to distract from the day-to-day oppression of the people of Burma, who have long been advocating for democracy, freedom, human rights, and peace.


Salai Za Ceu Lian can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Last Updated ( Monday, 12 December 2011 17:43 )  
The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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