David I. Steinberg: Aung San Suu Kyi's sanctions conundrum
The United States maintains certain sanctions in Myanmar against many individuals, military-led institutions, and other organizations for their involvement in the Southeast Asian nation's unpleasant past. Although the most basic sanctions have been lifted and the country is in the process of moving from military to civilian rule, in order to continue the remaining sanctions regimen, each May the U.S. president must issue an order indicating that "the actions and policies of the Government of Burma continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States."
This is bizarre considering that the U.S. has opened a trade office, encouraged responsible investment, and is actively engaged in an economic aid program in the country formerly known as Burma. If one were to take the U.S. statement seriously, its government is encouraging its citizens who are involved in these programs to put their safety in jeopardy by operating in Myanmar. Although this is simply a U.S. bureaucratic requirement, how the Burmese or foreign investors may feel about it raises other issues.
This situation is a product of lingering U.S. congressional concerns, encouraged by some human rights groups focused solely on Myanmar. In the past, sanctions against the country and exclusion of foreign economic -- and even, for a period, humanitarian -- assistance were supported by Aung San Suu Kyi, now Myanmar's de facto leader, as a means by which to deny both legitimacy and prospects for development to a military regime she, and much of the Western world, regarded as illegitimate.
Some years ago, when Suu Kyi was asked whether she would advocate lifting the sanctions, she cleverly sidestepped the question by saying that since she did not initiate them, she could not end them. But her opinion on ending them, conveyed to the U.S. Congress should she be so inclined, would go a long way to eliminating the remaining sanctions. She essentially determined U.S. policy toward Myanmar until the Obama administration, and congressional views are still shaped by her pronouncements or attitudes.
Now, however, times have changed. The National League for Democracy, the party she controls, is the primary political force in the state, and Suu Kyi personally considers herself "above the President" (whom she chose) and in virtual charge of the political forces within the country. Yet the military continues to play critical roles in the legislature, the administration of the executive branch of the government, the armed forces and the police, and in relations with the ethnic groups. There is thus an inherent tension between the two camps, as each has long-held, and understandable, suspicions of each other. Trust between the two, and especially between Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing is an, and perhaps the, inherent element of a peaceful and successful transition to full civilian control of the country.
On attaining power, one might have thought Suu Kyi would request that the U.S. eliminate the remaining sanctions so economic development might proceed without bureaucratic, economic and investment hindrances.
Since she and the NLD control the government, getting rid of the restrictions would give an added fillip to her administration, speed up aspects of the economic development process, and rationalize many aspects of investment and banking, as well as encouraging other countries to invest as well. It would build trust with the military, and she could offer enhanced military training by the U.S., something that the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, desires but which is now constrained both by congressional attitudes and U.S. foreign aid legislation.
This, however, does not seem to be the case. Some say that Suu Kyi wants the sanctions to continue because this provides her with some sort of potential "leverage" over the military, and she could use the sanctions as a tool to extract further withdrawals of the military from positions of power. Without trust, however, such moves are unlikely. Some in the U.S. Congress may want a continuation of the sanctions, also as leverage, for policy reforms related to such groups as the Rohingya Muslim minority, but this also seems unlikely.
Her reluctance to advocate sanctions elimination may be negatively viewed within Myanmar. If improvement in living standards and employment do not occur and if their retardation is popularly linked by the military to the continuing existence of sanctions, and Suu Kyi as their effective custodian, this could be a political problem for the NLD.
More immediately important for a successful transition from military to civilian rule is the fact that a continuation of the sanctions will not build the degree of trust that is needed between the military and the NLD, and more especially between the military leadership and Suu Kyi. This admittedly amorphous concept of trust is the key element for a successful transformation to an eventual democratic state -- her articulated goal and the desire of most of the world.
One wonders whether there are other examples in the world today in which a state leader upholds foreign-imposed sanctions against his or her country. But as noted in Rudyard Kipling's "Letters from the East" in 1898, "This is Burma, and it is unlike any land you know about."
David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian Studies emeritus, Georgetown University, and visiting scholar, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.