8 May 2014

US President Barack Obama with Aung San Suu Kyi in 2014 (Getty Images).

A coalition of 29 human rights groups issued a statement on Tuesday urging US President Barack Obama to continue the country’s policy of “national emergency” with respect to Burma, which is set to expire later this month.

A number of sanctioning tools remain at the disposal of the US State Department and Treasury, although most American sanctions against Burmese entities were lifted in mid-2012. If Washington were to allow remaining sanctions to expire, it would follow in the footsteps of the European Union, which lifted all sanctions last year except for a longstanding arms embargo.

In a letter to US President Barack Obama, the organisations – led by the Washington-based US Campaign for Burma – claimed the “concerns and rationale for continuing the national emergency persist and have even worsened,” citing the arrest of new political prisoners, the denial of aid to Rohingya Muslims, and escalating violence in northern Burma. The letter also cited the “obstruction of political reform,” including a failure to amend the Constitution and lingering military ties with North Korea as reasons for maintaining the status quo. The organisations urged the president to maintain the national emergency, which they deemed “imperative for supporting the reform process in Burma.”

Breaking ranks with other Western countries, the US has chosen to maintain a limited arsenal of financial sanctions against Burma as political and economic reforms have progressed. “Sanctions were widely lifted under the belief that the Burmese government was planning to adhere to a measured path of human rights and democratic reforms,” Rachel Wagley, US Campaign for Burma’s policy director, told DVB. “This belief has proven demonstrably false, and now the international community is left with little recourse as the human rights situation grows increasingly dire, attacks escalate in ethnic areas, and Parliament works to enact new discriminatory laws.”

A longstanding Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, published by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), remains in force, and American companies are largely barred from doing business with SDN-listed entities, with a few exceptions. Last February, OFAC issued General Licence 19, which allows US entities to conduct transactions through four Burmese commercial banks owned by listed “cronies” otherwise subject to targeted sanctions.

While a number of entities have been added to the list over the past two years – primarily for military links with North Korea – the SDN list has come under intense criticism from critics of the US sanctions regime, who claim that enforcement is overly bureaucratic and counterproductive, with unclear criteria for why entities are listed. Many of the individuals still on the list are prominent tycoons with which US interests have had extensive contact, including Win Aung, the chairman of Burma’s Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a delegation from its American counterpart last year.

Following the suspension of most financial sanctions in mid-2012, President Obama signed Executive Order 13619 into law, which provides the State Department and Treasury with the right to stop asset transfers between Americans and Burmese entities that “[threaten] the peace, security, or stability of Burma” or commit human rights abuses. In theory, the order provides the US government with the legal framework to hold American companies accountable if they are complicit in human rights abuses or criminal activity on a case-by-case basis, outside of the blanket proscriptions already stipulated by the SDN list.

Entities found to be in violation of the Order are supposed to be added to the SDN list, but this has not always happened in a timely fashion. Last year, a joint statement by many of the same rights groups behind the call to maintain sanctions criticised the Obama administration for “tout[ing] the importance of updating the SDN list… while simultaneously failing to update it.”

While most import and export restrictions on Burma were lifted for good in 2013, some provisions of the 2008 Burma JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democracy Efforts) act remain in force, particularly a ban on the importation of Burmese rubies and jade due to their close associations with human rights violations and organised crime.

Last month, the Burma Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2014 was introduced to congressional committee, which could block further security assistance funds to the Burmese military unless it submits to civilian oversight and improves its human rights record, among other stipulations.

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