Suu Kyi’s Pragmatism Wins Over the Obama Administration

The US may have lifted economic sanction, but must now work with Myanmar on issues like building a strong civilian government and the Rohingya crisis.

Suu Kyi and Barack Obama at the Oval Office, Washington. Credit: Reuters

Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama at the Oval Office, Washington. Credit: Reuters

The US has decided to lift economic sanctions that it has imposed on Myanmar for two decades. The announcement was made following a meeting between President Barack Obama and Myanmar’s State Counselor-cum-foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House on September 14.

For many in Myanmar and the US, the lifting of sanctions is a win-win for the Obama and Suu Kyi administrations.

The US’s decision to do away with sanctions is partly a recognition of the democratic progress made by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, with a view to strengthen bilateral ties, particularly on the economic front.

Obama said, “The United States is now prepared to lift sanctions that we have imposed on Burma for quite some time…it is the right thing to do in order to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government.”

The US had eased some sanctions against Myanmar earlier this year to support political reform but had maintained most of its economic restrictions in order to penalise those it saw as hampering the democratically-elected government.

Economic impact

Since long before Suu Kyi’s visit to the US, there was speculation, and anticipation, that the issue of sanctions would be a major agenda for discussion. Although the details are yet to be outlined, Myanmar will likely be reinstated to the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), from which it was removed in 1989 following the brutal suppression by the military junta of pro-democracy uprisings a year before.

Lifting of economic sanctions will also remove the “national emergency” designation on Myanmar that has been in place for two decades.

Reinstating Myanmar to the GSP and removing the national emergency tag will beneficial for the US too. It will give US businesses and non-profit organisations greater incentive to invest and bring the American people, especially members of its business community, closer to Myanmar.

In anticipation of the sanctions being lifted, the Myanmar government recently formed a committee dedicated to ridding the country of its UN designation as a least developed country (LDC).

Myanmar has been on the LDC list since 1987 and to come out of this category requires the country to make progress on three areas – gross national income per capita, the human asset index and the economic vulnerability index. Naypyidaw needs to fulfil this requirement at two successive triennial reviews.

Moreover, while Suu Kyi was in Washington, the Myanmar government was making a push to overhaul rules on new foreign investment with a view to attracting more investments to the country.

Naypidaw’s ‘non-aligned’ approach

In order to address decades of economic woes, the NLD government has taken a pragmatic approach – or what some would call a ‘non-aligned policy’– by strengthening ties with the world’s major powers – China, the US, the UK and India.

In a bid to convince Western democracies, particularly the US, of its commitment to democracy, Suu Kyi and her NLD government took two strategically important steps before she began her journey to the US and UK.

The first was to hold the highly vaunted 21st century Panglong conference where the government was seeking to secure peace and reconciliation with the country’s ethnic minorities.

The second was the formation of a nine-member commission to find a sustainable solution to the complicated issues between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State. The commission is headed by former UN Secretary-General and Nobel laureate Kofi Annan. Members of the commission visited Myanmar just days before Suu Kyi began her trip to the US.

The US government has made resolving ethnic and religious minority issues one of the conditions to lift sanctions and normalise relations with Myanmar. Although it is still too early to ascertain if the 21st century Panglong conference and the Annan-led state advisory commission will bring peace and stability to Myanmar, such initiatives have been recognised by the Obama administration as positive and important steps toward attaining a successful democracy.

But all’s not well

Not everyone is happy with Suu Kyi’s approach as well as the lifting of sanctions. Although many have welcomed the decision of the US government, critics see the lifting of sanctions as a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of people who have continued to suffer at the hands of the Myanmar military or by the inadequate action of the NLD government.

On September 12, a group of 46 non-governmental organisations circulated a letter written to Obama to express concern about the possible lifting of sanctions while human rights abuses by the military and against Rohingya Muslims persist.

Suu Kyi has also received her share of criticism from some quarters for not doing enough to address the plight of the Rohingyas.

The critics may find some solace in the fact that Washington will retain some sanctions targeted toward the military establishment, especially the longstanding arms ban. Because of its special power, including the reservation of 25% of seats in all legislatures and that of three powerful cabinet portfolios – home, defence and border affairs, it would be unwise for the US government to remove all sanctions in entirety.

Similarly, while the Myanmar army continues to launch offensive attacks against the country’s ethnic armed groups and with the military’s unwilling to give up its special power, it would be a disgrace for Suu Kyi and the NLD government to ask for the lifting of arms embargo.

The way forward

Suu Kyi’s pragmatism and the Obama administration’s desire to open up economic frontiers in the Southeast Asian region will undoubtedly yield benefits for both countries. It was Suu Kyi who asked for US sanctions when she was under house arrest and now it is she asking for its removal.

Regardless of what benefits the lifting of sanctions may bring, Washington and Naypyidaw need to work together to address some of the most important challenges before Myanmar – cessation of armed conflicts across the country, building a federal system that respects the rights of every citizen, establishing a government where the civilian authorities have control over the military and resolving the sensitive but crucial Rohingya issue.

Washington should continue to use both carrots and sticks in dealing with the Myanmar military. While maintaining an open door policy with the new civilian government, Washington needs to continue speaking out for the rights of the people whose fundamental rights are abused and violated.

Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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