Over the past few months, President Obama has made it clear he wants to make one big final push in Southeast Asia. After lifting arms sanctions on Vietnam and making overtures to Laos, Obama now says he wants all sanctions lifted on Myanmar. The New York Times reports:
“Recognizing the progress toward democratic transition that Myanmar has achieved, including through the election of a civilian-led government, and in an effort to support inclusive economic growth, the United States will terminate the National Emergency with respect to Myanmar and will revoke the Executive Order-based framework of the Burma sanctions program,” the White House statement said. Myanmar is also known as Burma.
But the move is viewed with concern by leaders of some human rights groups, who worry that eliminating sanctions is premature given the slow pace of reforms in Myanmar, where the military still controls a large portion of parliamentary seats and important government ministries.
“It sends a terrible message to say you’re not going to reward a government unless they do something, and then reward them anyway,” said John Sifton, the deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “Civil society groups question whether this is the right move at the right time. Everybody’s wondering why you would do this now.”
Human rights activists have been uneasy about U.S. Myanmar policy for a while now, especially with Aung San Suu Kyi being very cautious about making any overly provocative moves in addressing the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya minority. The Rohingya, though a top cause among international human rights activists, represent a divisive ethnic question in Burma, and Aung San Suu Kyi is keen to keep the issue from getting so heated that the military feels the need to step in and restore its own authority. In any case, there are no “better” alternatives to Suu Kyi, even from a strictly human rights angle, and it’s far from clear that the U.S. can force an end to the ethnic persecution in the country by making her life even more difficult. Indeed, one need look no further than Thailand to see an example of where the United States has taken a blunt human rights-first approach, both to the detriment of its relationship with the country and with little to show for it.
And Myanmar matters a lot from a geopolitical standpoint too: pulling the country away from China has been a big success for the Obama administration. Will lifting all sanctions seal the deal? The White House certainly hopes so, cries of the human rights community notwithstanding.