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Human Rights Far From Guaranteed as US Sanctions on Burma Are Removed

By Burma Partnership  •  September 19, 2016

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RTSNSUW

During his meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on September 14 2016, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would end sanctions on Burma. Earlier in the week, White House deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes anticipated the easing of sanctions, stating, “We want to make sure our sanctions are not preventing the type of economic development and investment that would help the people of Myanmar.”

Mr. Rhodes’ statement also attempted to address the inevitable backlash from civil society organizations, human rights organizations and the international community, who have long drawn attention to Burma’s consistently poor human rights record. Acknowledging the need to reform Burma’s constitution, to limit the power of the Burma Army, and to address the persecution of Rohingya, the White House representative, however, noted that these changes would take a considerable amount of time.

This move by the US follows in the pattern of other international observers, such as the European Union (EU). Just recently, the EU decided to end its annual tradition of sponsoring a resolution before the United Nations General Assembly that highlights Burma’s human rights situation.

This comes at the same time as conflict intensifies in Karen State. The joint forces of the Burma Army and its proxy Border Guard Force (BGF) have attacked a breakaway group of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the escalation of conflict over the week has resulted in the displacement of over 3,000 villagers. In response to the renewed fighting, the Karen National Union, the leading ethnic armed organizations (EAO) for the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement released a statement warning the Burma Army and the Border Guard Force (BGF) that their actions will undoubtedly damage the ongoing peace process.

This renewed conflict in Karen State will only further contribute to the 644,000 conflict affected internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Burma. In addition, the ongoing armed conflict in Kachin and northern Shan State has also intensified despite the peace process. Over 120,000 people are still displaced due to this armed conflict. Sadly so far, the NLD-led Government has not taken any action to resolve the lack of humanitarian aid provisioning for a number of these populations in need, including in cases where the Burma Army has been found to be effectively blocking humanitarian deliveries.

In addition, the long-persecuted Rohingya are also left unable to receive sufficient aid and are not likely to receive any respite in the near future. On September 16, 11 political parties, including the formerly ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, released a joint-letter condemning the newly created Arakan State Commission, led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. One of the primary functions of the Commission has been to reduce and identify the root causes of tensions in Arakan State, so as to prevent future cases similar to the 2012 violence, in which 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims were displaced.

The announcement detailing the end of US sanctions also does not include information about what will happen to restrictions placed on individuals listed as “Specially Designated Nationals.” As Human Rights Watch recently pointed out, this list includes the names of individuals with known criminal records and a history of human rights abuses. Removing these names without first establishing accountability mechanisms will likely exacerbate worsening human rights conditions in the country.

Therefore, it is not a surprise to see that President Obama’s decision has provoked criticism from human rights groups, including international such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as they believe that it is not yet the time to be removing sanctions. According to Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Rafendi Djamin, “We have seen encouraging changes as Myanmar eases out from under the shadow of military rule. But there is still a lot more to do to ensure a decisive break with the country’s ugly past of human rights violations.”

Similarly, 44 global and local civil society organizations such as Kachin Peace Network and Tavoyan Women’s Union banded together to submit an open letter to President Barack Obama, condemning his announcement. Instead, the letter recommended maintaining the sanctions order on Burma, at least until five key conditions had been met. In particular:

a) The Burmese Army ceases violations of international humanitarian law;

b) There is substantive and observable progress in peace talks, prioritizing civil society, women, and youth inclusion;

c) The Burmese Government addresses the lack of citizenship for Rohingya and proves willing and capable of protecting the Rohingya from persecution;

d) Natural resource dividends are managed properly and shared between regional governments and the national government and;

e) The 2008 Constitution is reformed to give full power to the people of Burma.

President Barack Obama must heed the concerns of the 44 civil society organizations who remain justifiably convinced the Burma’s human rights situation is far from improved. The Burma Army’s recent military campaign in Karen, along with its involvement in fighting in Kachin and northern Shan States illustrates the obstacles that Burma is facing to achieve a peaceful and inclusive federal union that respects the autonomy of ethnic nationalities and protects human rights of its all people. Further, as noted by the civil society organizations, an inclusive peace process, the protection of the Rohingya from persecution, the equitable management of natural resource dividends, and the reformation of the 2008 Constitution remain much more effective milestones to measure meaningful progress for Burma. By accepting the existing state of human rights – and by failing to hold the Burma Army accountable – through the removal of sanctions, President Barack Obama is dangerously close to becoming complicit in ongoing human rights violations in Burma.

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