Administration Eases Sanctions on Burma, Eager to Show Positive Results of Obama’s ‘Engagement’

By Patrick Goodenough | April 5, 2012 | 5:09 AM EDT

Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy cheer in Yangon, Burma on Sunday, April 1, 2012, after the party announced that Suu Kyi had won a parliamentary seat in a landmark by-election, setting the stage for her to take public office for the first time. (AP Photo)

( – Steps announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ease restrictions on Burma can be swiftly reversed if the regime backs away from reforms, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

The official, who briefed reporters on background after Clinton announced the measures, emphasized that “they can be turned off or reversed quickly if there is backtracking.”

The official also said that the U.S. government wanted to send a strong signal that it supports and acknowledges recent steps Burma’s leaders have taken, “and we want to be assisting in that process.”

Despite progress – most recently by-elections on Sunday that saw the formerly imprisoned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her party win seats – some human rights groups and other critics of the regime are concerned that the international community may ease pressure too soon.

While the administration says it is proceeding cautiously, it also appears eager to show in this election year that – in this case at least – President Obama’s policy of engaging hostile and authoritarian regimes has yielded some positive results.

“From the beginning of this administration, we have pursued a policy of engagement to support human rights and reform in Burma. We knew that the challenges were great, but we also believed that a new approach was needed to support the aspirations of the people,” Clinton said in remarks at the State Department on Wednesday.

“These [by-]elections and the progress that we have seen are precisely the kind of step that the president and I envisioned when we embarked on this historic opening,” she added.

Clinton said the administration would shortly name an ambassador to Burma, approve visas for some government officials to visit the U.S., set up a U.S. Agency for International Development mission – current USAID work is managed from neighboring Thailand – and lift its block on the U.N. Development Program running a country program in Burma.

It would also allow U.S. non-profit groups to carry out a range of activities in the Southeast Asian country, “from democracy building to health and education,” and would begin a targeted easing of a ban on the export of U.S. financial services to and investment in Burma.

“Sanctions and prohibitions will stay in place on individuals and institutions that remain on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts,” Clinton said.

She conceded that there was “a long way to go” and said the U.S. would continue to press for the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners, urge progress in reconciliation with ethnic minority groups, and seek an end to Burma’s military relationship with North Korea.

Although Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy did well in the by-elections it will hold only about six percent of the seats in parliament, 80 percent of which remain under the control of the military and its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Advocacy groups note that, despite improvements, the press freedom situation in Burma remains troubling.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the freedom of expression group Article 19, repressive laws remain in place, including one that provides for imprisonment for anyone convicted of sending unauthorized information over the Internet. A section of the penal code that outlaws any criticism of the government or state.

State censorship remains pervasive, and was evident during the recent by-election campaign. The Election Commission banned the airing of certain topics, leading for instance to a campaign speech by Suu Kyi being censored before it was broadcast on state-controlled media.

“The nine-point list of banned topics has effectively muted critical debate on the campaign trail and as a result blunted any hard-hitting news coverage of the pre-election period,” said the CPJ.

The government in January released more than 300 political prisoners but hundreds more are believed to remain incarcerated.

“Unfortunately, without a free press or freedom of speech, we do not know how many political prisoners remain languishing in Burmese jails,” said Article 19. “We urge the international community to remember that without free expression, Burma can never be truly free.”

In Britain, at least 66 lawmakers from all political parties have signed a parliamentary motion urging the British government to block any attempt by the European Union to ease sanctions on Burma “prematurely before substantially more political prisoners are released, conflict is ended and there is an inclusive dialogue process to secure further and irreversible reform.”

The motion “notes with concern that hundreds of political prisoners remain in Burma’s jails, and that there has been an increase in human rights abuses in ethnic states.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow