December 12, 2012 | Backgrounder on Asia and the Pacific
Burma has undertaken a series of reforms at a pace no one anticipated just a few short years ago. The Obama Administration's policy toward Burma lacks sufficient protections against Burmese backsliding on reforms. Congress should reassert its role in Burma policy by setting precise criteria for Burma's progress and tying failure to achieve these benchmarks to re-imposition of the major U.S. sanctions.
President Barack Obama's November visit to Burma showcased his Administration's approach to Burma. It is one of gentle persuasion and positive reinforcement, except for sanctions tightly targeted at specific individuals and entities. In the President's words, he seeks to extend a hand to an unclenching fist.
Whether encouraged by Administration outreach or not--and the Administration has presented developments in Burma as both--change is afoot. The Burmese government has undertaken a series of reforms at a pace no one anticipated just a few short years ago. Still, the U.S. needs a policy response that is more than lifting sanctions and setting broad objectives if it is to achieve its long-held, bipartisan goal of liberty for the Burmese people. There must be a clear downside for the regime if it falls short.
The Administration has repeatedly emphasized that reforms in Burma are not "irreversible." Congress should reinforce this by affirming precise criteria and tying failure of the Burmese regime to achieve them to re-imposition of the major sanctions already lifted. In so doing, Congress will reassert its traditional role in Burma policy.
As a result of the changes in Burma, alliances that grew in Washington over the past 20 years are breaking apart and reshaping. The side in favor of engagement has grown much stronger, while the pressure camp has weakened. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), former leaders of the pro-sanction camp, now favor engagement. The Administration is consulting with them and other congressional leaders as it moves forward.
The acquiescence of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has undoubtedly influenced the Hill. This is appropriate given her long sacrifice and leadership. At the same time, however, policymakers should consider how Suu Kyi's role is changing. She likely does not understand the power that her words carry in Washington and how little control she has over them once she speaks them. Washington has overridden her position at least once, when it permitted investment in the oil and gas industry. In the process, the nuance in her support for lifting sanctions was lost.
Suu Kyi is in a precarious political situation in Burma in which she is hard put to support any sanctions on a government of which she is now part--although she does say the sanctions now being lifted were critical to moving Burma to the point where it is today in the political reform process. She is hardly in a position to refuse a visit to Burma by the American President or Secretary of State. In fact, her concerns about the President's visit were also overridden.
The U.S. is Suu Kyi's principal international supporter. With no credible threat to publicly oppose or dispute the details of U.S. policy and with little independent congressional support, she has no leverage in the relationship.
Suu Kyi undoubtedly supports the change in the nature of U.S. policy. Likely, she also calculates that where she disagrees on the details, it is best to make the most of a situation she cannot control. This makes her public statements--even her private statements to American politicians, given their propensity to shout from the rooftops her vindication of their own positions--less reliable indicators of what she truly believes.
With Suu Kyi no longer the final word about the situation in Burma, Congress needs to broaden its vision. Several prominent human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and U.S. Campaign for Burma, have expressed reservations or outright objections to President Obama's November visit to Burma. They argued that the reforms in Burma are tenuous and that continuing serious abuses indicate underlying power realities. Thus, the President's visit sent the wrong signal. Human rights groups have also consistently argued that sanctions are being lifted too rapidly.
The case against the rapid change in Burma policy--in one year the U.S. has gone from "maximum pressure" to lifting the principal parts of the sanctions regime--was best summarized by Bo Kyi, a founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based human rights activist group best known for its accounting of political prisoners in Burma. Bo Kyi points out that "none of the benchmarks outlined by the United States, including the release of all political prisoners, have been met... Worse, there are no conditions for the re-imposition of sanctions."
The human rights community has a point. Lifting U.S. import restrictions on November 16 was the last big move. Residual bits of U.S. sanctions against Burma will remain for many years, such as travel and asset bans against particular individuals and organizations, prohibition on certain military-to-military activities and assistance, continued restrictions on the import of jadeite and rubies, restrictions on investments and financial services tied to Burma's armed forces, and the arms embargo. However, none of these measures serve well as instruments of pressure. They are simple safeguards against U.S. contribution to abuses. As Bo Kyi indicates, there is no specific indication of what would constitute cause to re-impose sanctions.
A we'll-know-it-when-we-see-it approach is not acceptable for determining what constitutes cause to re-impose sanctions. Congress should reassert its role in Burma policy and set clear expectations for the Administration. Working back from Burma's national elections in 2015, Congress should establish three certification periods and pair Administration reports with the re-imposition of specific sanctions unless specific benchmarks are met:
First Period. During the first period, Burma should:
If Burma fails to meet these criteria, the U.S. should:
Second Period. During the second period, Burma should:
If Burma fails to meet these criteria, the U.S. should:
If Burma fails to meet these criteria, the U.S. should:
Even if Burma fails to meet any of these benchmarks, several changes in U.S. policy will remain: presence of a U.S. ambassador in Burma, availability of financial services for nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian assistance, democracy promotion assistance, counternarcotics assistance (if Burmese authorities are certified cooperative), and visas for selected pro-reform Burmese officials to visit the U.S. This level of activity is appropriate given the changes that have happened over the past year and a half.
By the same token, even if Burma meets all of the criteria, including an election in 2015 that honors the right of the Burmese to change their government, many sanctions will remain, including the caveats that the Administration has made in its easing of sanctions. Lifting these residual sanctions will depend on continued progress on rule of law and reforms in other specific areas, including the use of forced labor and child soldiers, repatriation of refugees, treatment of internally displaced people, and withdrawal of government troops from ethnic areas. Even with a legitimate democratic government, the military could conceivably continue to exercise an unacceptable degree of autonomy. Restrictions on military-to-military contact and assistance programs, including I-MET, as well as the arms embargo should be the last sanctions lifted. This will give pro-reform forces appropriate leverage long into a genuine post-election transition to civilian rule.
The Administration's "action for action" policy first enunciated by Secretary Clinton after her historic visit to Burma in 2011 has gone by the boards. It is now racing ahead, abandoning necessary caution and leverage. Regrettably, Congress is letting it happen.
The Obama Administration has emphasized that as long as the legal framework for sanctions remains in place, it has insurance against the Burmese backsliding on reforms. Even under the most optimistic of scenarios, this insurance will be useful in guarding against counterrevolution following the 2015 elections. In the meantime, however, Congress needs to step in and add the "stick" back to a policy that has become all "carrot." It can do this by reasserting its historic role in Burma policy, setting concrete objectives, and clarifying the consequences of underperformance.
--Walter Lohman is Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
 Kurt M. Campbell, "U.S. Policy Toward Burma," U.S. Department of State, September 28, 2009, http://www.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2009/09/129698.htm (accessed December 4, 2012), and Kurt M. Campbell, "The Lady and the General," Foreign Policy, December 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/11/26/the_lady_and_the_general (accessed December 4, 2012).
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