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Politics

Logical dilemmas: the US and Myanmar

A logical but highly arcane reason exists for the recent juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory U.S. actions related to Myanmar, although few observers, including Americans, would understand their relationship, and especially their timing. This is particularly ironic since U.S.-Myanmar relations are the best they have ever been since Myanmar's independence from Britain in 1948. Cognitive dissonance seems alive and well in the halls of U.S. power.

     On May 15, President Barack Obama signed the "Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to Burma," which enables economic sanctions under the U.S. National Emergencies Act. To prevent the automatic termination of such an "emergency," the president must notify Congress annually that the national emergency declared on May 20, 1997, will continue for another year.

Policy dissonance

Obama's statement this year noted Myanmar's progress in liberalization and reform, but stressed that the "actions and policies of the government of Burma continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat" to U.S. national security and foreign policy.

     Yet, less than a month before Obama signed that document, the U.S. Department of Commerce officially indicated it was opening a commercial office in Yangon to facilitate U.S. investment and business in Myanmar. If such a threat exists, why is the U.S. government subjecting American businesses to the perils suggested by Obama's statement?

     In spite of Washington's earlier move to relax sanctions against Myanmar -- which, officially, the U.S. still calls "Burma," listing the country under "B" in the Department of State's Diplomatic List -- some restrictions on individual and military-owned or sponsored organizations continue. If the president did not sign the declaration, the sanctions would lapse. However, U.S. legislation dating back decades and completely unrelated to Myanmar forced the president's action, however irrelevant such a law might be today, particularly in the U.S.-Myanmar context of good relations. It is, of course, insulting to Myanmar's government.

     Some have argued that these residual sanctions are needed in order to influence Myanmar's military to turn over control to a civilian government and to continue to punish some involved in human rights abuses. Many would suggest this also means handing over the government to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy. Yet, if there were serious backsliding on progressive changes, sanctions could be easily reimposed. Simply to continue them seems an unnecessary slight to a state with which the U.S. is hoping to maintain a solid relationship and to a country which Obama has visited and plans to go to again.

     Observers should remember there is in the U.S., and in the U.K. as well, a vigorous and effective lobby which has insisted for about a generation that the only acceptable government in Myanmar is one led by the NLD. That lobby advocated "regime change" for years, then stated that the Thein Sein government that emerged from the elections of 2010 was not legitimate. It has also claimed the reforms initiated by Myanmar's government since 2011 have not been real. When they proved to be real, albeit incomplete, this vocal lobby demanded an urgent solution to the minority dilemma -- a real, severe problem that has bedeviled Myanmar since independence. These lobby groups have bipartisan support in much of the U.S. Congress and have been able to influence attitudes and legislation. Their strength lies in their moral position, which they apply to Myanmar's problems and far less, if at all, to other states with similar issues.

Path of least resistance

The internal political dynamics in the U.S. would seem to indicate this will not change in the near term, and that sanctions will continue. And for the administration to shift policies before the U.S. 2016 presidential election and eliminate all sanctions might create problems for any Democratic candidate. This would particularly be the case for Hillary Clinton, should she run, as the shift in U.S. policy toward Myanmar came under her watch as Obama's first secretary of state.

     No U.S. government will want to use up political capital on Myanmar. If the country's problems with minorities and sectarian violence persist; if the planned 2015 elections are not seen as free and fair; and if there is no liberalization of certain elements of Myanmar's constitution, the default U.S. position on sanctions is the safer political bet -- no matter, alas, how much it defies logic and effective policy.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus at Georgetown University and visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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