No doubt, given its status as one of the last frontiers, Myanmar/Burma on many occasions the coming years will be front page news.
Currently under discussion, the US decision to lift all of its remaining economic sanctions, has surprised many.
As the BBC explains, most of the US sanctions were targeted - not aimed at the Burmese people but deliberately focused on key individuals and companies who supported the old military regime. Thus ending sanctions would effectively take 38 individuals and 73 companies off the US blacklist. Among them, men who gave the orders to fire on demonstrators and imprison activists and opposition leaders.There are businesses that helped procure weapons and others that were dubiously awarded juicy contracts to build, among many things, Myanmar's empty capital, Naypyidaw.
While Suu Kyi seems to have given up some of her ideals, Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transition has been a high point of Obama’s time in the White House, a relative success story in a region where not all has gone according to plan since the administration’s “pivot to Asia” in 2012. And recent developments in Myanmar have implications for U.S. politics beyond Obama’s legacy: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton points to progress there as a key diplomatic outcome of her tenure at the State Department.
The reason for this early lifting of sanctions can, in my opinion, however also be understood in the context of the ongoing US attempt to limit Chinese influence over neighboring Myanmar/Burma as a base for a strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington. Whereby already noticed about Hillary Clinton Clinton's 2011 visit to Burma I mentioned that the lever China could utilize is its ability to direct large amounts of investment into Myanmar. The United States does not have such a tool since, unlike Beijing, Washington does not have the authority, ability or desire to direct U.S. companies to invest in other countries. Such an influx of Chinese funding and investment could encourage Myanmar to temper its relationship with the United States.
Thus Wednesday’s announcement marked a significant departure from the incremental easing of executive sanctions since 2012.
The move to reinstate Myanmar’s GSP status was made just months after the Obama administration downgraded Myanmar to the lowest tier status on the annual Trafficking in Persons report for failing to curb endemic forced labour tantamount to human slavery. The demotion to tier 3 status opened the possibility for further sanctions against the country, which Obama in a contrary move now waived.
Not unlike the BBC various leading newspapers expressed skepticism, like the New York Times here, or the Financial Times, calling it “a major setback” for efforts to weed out corruption in Myanmar, because the US had given up any leverage it might have had over the process.
In a sign of how opinions are divided also within Myanmar, itself a proposal by a member of parliament to lobby for the removal of US economic sanctions was defeated last month in the Lower House, with 219 votes against and 151 votes in favor. Whereby it is also well known that the country’s present Constitution gives Myanmar’s military the upper hand by reserving a quarter of the seats in Parliament for the military, empowering the military to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs, and to dissolve the government during a national emergency.
Some experts thus fear the removal of sanction will hurt the United States’ ability to influence Myanmar’s most troubled sectors.
Of course the devil is in the details, the question is how sanctions are removed, and if they will be removed in a way to leverage some change.
“If the issue is leverage, the decision today makes almost no sense: Obama and Suu Kyi just took important tools out of their collective toolkit for dealing with the Burmese military, and threw them into the garbage,” said John Sifton, the deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch.
On top of sanctions relief, the new trade benefits will allow Myanmar to export of some 5,000 products to the United States duty-free, the U.S. Trade Representative said in a statement.
Some restrictions remain in place. Obama’s decision does not normalize relations between the U.S. military and Myanmar troops. This means no U.S. weapons, equipment, or support will be sold or given to Myanmar’s military.
However, the White House on Wednesday advised Congress that America would offer preferential trade benefits to Myanmar that have been suspended since 1989, one year after the violent crackdown by the military.
Not surprising the move has delighted business groups but been sharply criticised by human rights organizations.
Phil Roberston, the deputy director of the Asian division of Human Rights Watch, 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.
“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.
Most notably, the sanctions rollback will derestrict the country’s dirty jade industry. The jade trade is worth billions of dollars that flow through tangled channels to shady interests, including illicit gangs and corrupt military officials. Jade profits fuel ethnic conflict and sustain the military’s influence, forces that threaten to thwart five years of rapid progress.
Almost all the jade comes from Kachin State, but the local population sees practically no benefits. At the same time, Kachin is the scene of the country’s most serious armed conflict, which has killed thousands and displaced over 100,000 more. This is not a coincidence. While there are certainly other factors driving the violence, research has shown that jade provides both sides – the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and Army (KIA) – with incentives and financing to carry on fighting.
As seen, many of the biggest licensed jade mining companies are controlled by the families of politically influential retired generals, not least former dictator Than Shwe. Working alongside them are army conglomerates such as Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited.
Taking one example, the May 2016 escalation of fighting around Kachin State’s Hpakant jade mines clearly showed the threat the business, in its current form, poses to peace. The army’s offensive came just days after the current new government asserted itself through a visit to the mines by Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation U Ohn Win.
Something very similar happened at the start of 2015 when jade company operations were getting into high gear following a two-year mining suspension, and as the Thein Sein government was weighing up an extension of Jade firms’ mining licences. On that occasion, the KIA detention of a Kachin State minister and police officers south of Hpakant became the justification for a major Tatmadaw offensive against its Battalion 6 base to the north. A series of bomb blasts followed for which no one claimed responsibility.
As indicated in my 23 Dec. 2015 reporting, similar to what happens with Jade also can be seen in the Burmese-Tatmadaw army leaders actively participating in the drug trade, whilst at the same time claiming to be cracking down on it. As a result opium cultivation in ethnic conflict zones has steadily increased during the recent years and addiction among ethnic civilians has spiraled out of control.
At the time of writing also elsewhere in the country government supported clashes force thousands to flee fighting in Karen state.
At the same time, again China, not the West or the Obama administration, is the most important player in the country’s peace process, or talks between the government, the military and the country’s abundance of ethnic armies. The West’s participation has been mostly through hordes of private and official peacemakers who have achieved little more than turning their involvement into a lucrative industry.
Also the peace talks that Suu Kyi organised last month were not a success. The United Wa State Army sent a delegation but they walked out when they learnt they had been classified as “observers”. It is unclear if that was their own decision, or did so at China’s behest.
The success of Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest trip to Washington may mark a new chapter in Myanmar’s relations with the United States, but the ongoing civil war in the country gives China control over crucial levers of pressure on its neighbour that the distant superpower can hardly match.
What is clear that, while many more US business will now be able to invest there, the US-China rivalry over influence in Myanmar/Burma has not ended yet.
There also is no doubt that the rise of China is an event which threatens America's position in international affairs. There is growing evidence that the centuries long domination of global affairs by the West is coming to a close. The key reason is economic and geopolitics.
Update 19 Sept. 2016: According to The Irrawaddy, the reaction from China was immediate, with a message in the Chinese media stating ‘‘China is willing to invest in basic infrastructure projects in Burma that the West is not willing to invest in," and: Finding a solution to the Myitsone project is important for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who needs China’s cooperation in talks with ethnic minority armed groups operating along the border with China.