Burma Partnership, Strengthening Cooperation for a Free Burma
Signup Now!
Join our mailing list for latest news and information about Burma.

9-22 April: Lifting Of Sanctions Premature, No Substantive Changes Yet

April 23, 2012

This week has seen the Thein Sein government awarded for their tentative steps towards a democratic Burma. Many countries such as the UK, Norway, Australia, and the US have announced an easing of sanctions while the EU will make a decision today although it seems a forgone conclusion that they will lift many sanctions. While these steps should be rewarded it must be noted that the fundamental conditions for which the sanctions were imposed in the first place remain and the steps taken by the government are tiny.

Catherine Ashton, EU Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security identified the three key areas in which EU policy towards sanctions against Burma will hinge on: national reconciliation, the release of political prisoners, and resolving ethnic conflict. If we take these three in turn, it is evident that these issues have not been resolved.

As for the national reconciliation process, by-elections in which less than 7% of seats are available does not legitimize a Parliament still dominated by the military backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, that came into office through a undemocratic, military-drafted constitution and the sham 2010 elections. Not only is the number of seats won by the NLD insignificant, but the by-elections were littered with irregularities, intimidation and vote-rigging.

Secondly, the release of political prisoners. There have been a number of high profile releases of political prisoners since Thein Sein took office, in particular on January 13. It is important to note that these releases weren’t unconditional, and that there remain around 1,000 languishing in Burma’s prisons, often in remote locations far from their families where their basic rights are deprived. So far the Thein Sein government refuses to allow an independent body to verify the exact number of political prisoners and document the conditions they endure. Neither has it taken any steps to repeal the repressive laws that criminalize freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Thirdly, resolving ethnic conflict. While there have been tentative ceasefires with some ethnic groups, the Burma Army continues to launch offensives against ethnic armed groups. At least 14 clashes have been reported with the Shan State Army (South), as well as attacks on the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the Shan State Army (North). In the first two weeks of April alone, the Kachin Independence Organization reported 64 Burma Army attacks against Kachin Independence Army frontline posts and the movement of heavy artillery into the area around their Laiza headquarters, suggesting that further fighting is likely despite Thein Sein ordering the Army to halt offensives.

It is clear that the conditions that Catherine Ashton has laid out, and which are supported by many in the international community, are still being compromised while other fundamental issues that need to be addressed for a transition to democracy to be successful, such as legal reforms and justice for the victims are still not being tackled. There is a long way to go for a genuine, functioning democracy whereby the holders of power are accountable to the people and rule of law is established. It seems, however, that this being overlooked in favour of lifting sanctions, thus facilitating investment. This motivation is not exactly made secret either. Catherine Ashton will “encourage European companies to look for opportunities in Burma.” Burma does have huge investment opportunities, but these should not be explored at the expense of human rights and the well-being of the people of Burma.

One of the main risks in lifting too many sanctions is the loss of leverage that the international community has over the reform process. It is obvious that the lifting of sanctions is something that the Thein Sein government is striving for but the by-elections results should not be the litmus test for substantive change in Burma. It is merely a small step and while there remains an absence of legal reform, on-going armed conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic areas, and the existence of a significant number of political prisoners, the results of the by-elections does not represent meaningful change. Until such conditions are resolved and the people of Burma can feel a sense of justice and ownership of the reform process, the lifting of significant sanctions is a premature policy. Echoing this, the European Council for Foreign Relations in a recently released report advocates for “a gradual approach” as this “would demonstrate support for the situation on the ground and for the promising steps already taken, and make clear that the key to full normalisation will be verifiable and irreversible reforms rather than mere promises of them.”

It is vital that a wholesale lifting of sanctions does not scupper the democracy movement. Recent reforms are still superficial in terms of political will and substance, and are not irreversible. If the government is rewarded too richly this will facilitate a development process that lacks transparency, accountability and the participation of the people of Burma and likely to exacerbate existing problems, especially for non-Burman ethnic communities.

News Highlights

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD MPs postpone attending the opening session of Parliament over objection to the wording in the oath of office, which says they must “safeguard” the constitution

Daw Suu meets President Thein Sein and plans a trip abroad for the first time in 24 years, during which she will visit Norway and the UK

Inside Burma

Khin Aung Myint, Upper House Speaker, says corruption is the most important issue and amendments to the existing anti-corruption legislation will be submitted to the next session of Parliament

Union Election Commission grants permission to the Arakan League for Democracy to establish itself as a political party

Arakan Liberation Party meets with Daw Suu after holding peace talks with the government during which they reached a five-point agreement

Kachin Independence Organization reports troop and ammunitions buildup by the Burma Army, suggesting an upcoming assault on their headquarters in Laiza; Kachin Independence Army launches offensives in Lashio township against Manpang People’s Militia Force, killing at least four soldiers

Karen National Union opens liaison office in Kyaukkyi, Toungoo District, as part of peacemaking agreement

Karenni National Progressive Party leaders gather public feedback on the initial ceasefire agreement ahead of their meeting with the government

Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-K prepares to hold peace talks with Naypyidaw’s peace negotiating team

United Nationalities Federal Council says it is now ready to talk with Naypyidaw’s chief negotiator Aung Min

Dissident monk and former political prisoner, Ashin Gambira, disrobes after he was refused sanctuary by several monasteries

Religious authorities force fifty monks in northern Shan State off their land, claiming that the land is Burma Army territory

Naypyidaw District Court rejects an appeal from local residents sentenced to hard labour for refusing to implement an eviction order

The Myanmar Post Global will not be allowed to print its supplementary pages for two weeks as punishment for publishing a two-page supplement that had not been reviewed by censors


Tokyo Stock Exchange and Daiwa Securities Group will help set up a stock market in Burma and Japan agrees to forgive 303.5 billion yen (US$3.7 billion) in loans and interest to Burma and vows to resume support and aid for infrastructure during Thein Sein’s visit

Burma may send 200,000 workers to Thailand to be employed in Thai factories under a direct state-to-state agreement


On a trip to Burma, British Prime Minister David Cameron calls for sanctions to be suspended not lifted; EU Foreign Affairs Representative Catherine Ashton says EU will lift sanctions, decision to be made today

US Senator Jim Webb, on a visit to Burma, says trade sanctions should be lifted “as quickly as possible” and the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control authorizes financial transactions for not-for-profit projects and programs in areas such as good governance, health, education and sport

Bob Carr, Australia’s foreign minister, says President Thein Sein and 260 civilian officials would no longer be subject to financial restrictions and travel bans but sanctions would remain in place against about 130 military officials

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird suggests the government may lift sanctions

UN Security Council hails by-elections but a number of members voice concerns about ongoing fighting in ethnic nationality areas and the continued detention of hundreds of political prisoners

Belarus and Burma are planning joint projects for oil and non-ferrous metals

Latest from the Blog

NLD’s Victory A Step Forward But Sanctions Must be Maintained Until Genuine Reforms Under Way
By Burma Partnership


Villagers in Namtu, northern Shan State, file a complaint to local authorities and petition the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) over destruction of their farmland by China’s gas pipeline construction; consequently the SNDP sends a letter to President Thein Sein asking him to carefully consider before approving the creation of a development zone in the area

Myanmar Democracy Current Force distributes pamphlets calling for 24 hours electricity and 5000 Kyats SIM cards in Rangoon, authorities forcibly seize the pamphlets

Rangoon Division Industrial Workers Union demands paid leave for factory workers in their jurisdiction during the country’s New Year holidays

Hundreds of Rohingya are camping out at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Vasant Vihar, India, to seek refugee status

Conservationists start a campaign to save Rangoon’s colonial buildings from being destroyed once sanctions are lifted


Lifting Sanctions on Burma’s Regime Would Be a Mistake
By Tom Andrews
The Washington Post

Burma Hails a New Dawn, but Sanctions Still Have a Role to Play
By Wai Hnin Pwint Thon
The Guardian

The Economic Forces at Work Behind the Karen Ceasefire
By Saw Kapi
The Irrawaddy

Tread Lightly When Easing Burma Sanctions
By Zetty Brake
Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Statements and Press Releases

Statement on Peace and Development in Burma
By 36 Community-Based Organizations

UN Security Council Must Address War Crimes in Burma
By Burma Campaign UK

David Cameron Must Highlight On-Going Human Rights Abuses In Burma
By Burma Campaign UK

Burma Sanctions Suspension – Timelines and Benchmarks Needed
By Burma Campaign UK

Christian Solidarity Worldwide Urges British Prime Minister to Press for Peace Process and Political Dialogue with Ethnic Nationalities During Visit to Burma
By Christian Solidarity Worldwide

Risk to Investors Continue in Burma, Despite Elections
By Conflict Risk Network

South Korean Corporate and Government Should Not Exploit Burma’s Liberal Movement
By 11 Organizations

The Death of Two Burmese Migrants in The Custody of The Thai Authorities Must Be Probed
By Mekong Migration Network

AICHR’s Consultation on ASEAN Human Rights Declaration: Too Little Too Late
By Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy Task Force on ASEAN and Human Rights

The Elders Congratulate Aung San Suu Kyi Ahead of her Appearance in Parliament in Burma/Myanmar
By The Elders


Not Open for Business: Despite Elections, Investor Risk Remains High in Burma
By Conflict Risk Network

This post is in: Weekly Highlights