US senators push for softening on Myanmar policy

A new bill was put forward in the United States Senate yesterday calling for an updated approach to Washington’s Myanmar foreign policy that balances human rights concerns while providing for the Southeast Asian nation’s economic development.

By Kayleigh Long ,  MyanmarTimes, Sept 15

The move came amid speculation about sanctions-related announcements ahead of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s landmark meeting with President Barack Obama this week.

The Burma Strategy Act of 2016 was introduced by senators Ben Cardin and John McCain.

“The legislation that we have introduced today seeks to build on Burma’s progress while being clear-eyed about lingering concerns regarding human rights, the plight of the Rohingya, the role of the military in Burmese society and politics, ethnic and national reconciliation, broad-based economic development, and the constitutional reform necessary to facilitate and complete Burma’s transition,” Sen Cardin stated in a press release.

The bill proposes further paving the way for limited military-to-military engagement, as well as allowing direct support of civil society and development initiatives. It also singles out a Gemstone Strategy Report as a matter of priority.

Juman Kubba, a senior campaigner at resource transparency advocacy group Global Witness, said the proposed legislation was affirmation that sanctions remain an effective weapon in Washington’s policy arsenal – particularly when it comes to managing the corruption-riddled US$30 billion jade trade.

“Congress has long been a staunch advocate for the democracy movement. This bill pushes back on moves to lift sanctions, sending a message that the US should instead use sanctions to help the new government tackle the powerful elites which threaten reform,” she said.

The Senate proposal – as well as suggested sanctions easing – has been met by criticism from rights groups.

“Senator McCain and Cardin’s legislation is both premature and wildly optimistic, and would emasculate what’s left of US sanctions on Burma without getting anything in return in terms of progress on human rights,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told The Myanmar Times by email yesterday.

“At a time when Aung San Suu Kyi is still struggling with an authoritarian military and an undemocratic 2008 constitution, one really wonders why she is unilaterally giving up some of the last leverage she has, and why US legislators who have previously been champions of democracy in Burma are going along with this,” he said.

However, Eric C Rose, lead director at Herzfeld Rubin Meyer & Rose Law Firm Limited, said he believes the bill is unlikely to get pushed through.

“This is a Democratic leadership-proposed legislation which seems to have, other than Senator McCain, no Republican co-sponsors. It is hard to see how it would be passed by a Republican-controlled Senate and House, in particular as it would give a perceived advantage in foreign policy to [Democratic presidential nominee] Hillary Clinton, and fortify the legacy of President Obama.”

“Myanmar needs bold new initiatives, for a number of good reasons, in order to maintain its pace of growth while at the same time remedying past mistakes. Such radical changes cannot be made without the contribution of the United States, among other nations,” he added.

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