With U.S.-Burma Ties on the Mend, Will a Lifting of Sanctions Be Next?

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Soe Than WIN / AFP / Getty Images

Burmese political prisoners Kyaw Min Yu, center, also known as Ko Jimmy, and his wife Nilar Thein, left, holding their child, celebrate upon their arrival at the Rangoon airport following their release from detention on Jan. 13, 2012

The reaction was swift. On Jan. 13 (an auspicious Friday the 13th, it turned out), Burma released 651 prisoners, among them hundreds of democracy activists, ethnic leaders, senior monks and even a former Prime Minister who had fallen out with the country’s ex-military junta chief. Hours later, the U.S. announced that it was normalizing relations with Burma and would soon name an ambassador to the Southeast Asian country after an absence of two decades.

Diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Burma, known officially as Myanmar, had languished in a purgatory since the former army regime ignored the 1990 elections won overwhelmingly by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Since that time, the military junta had jailed those who dared to question its authority, terrorized ethnic minorities in the country’s vast borderlands and presided over a resource-rich country with one of the world’s smallest budgets for health and education spending.

But several rounds of political-prisoner amnesties and a series of political and economic reforms have completely changed the dynamic in Burma. When a military that had ruled the country since a 1962 coup announced it would be transitioning to a quasi-civilian government after elections in 2010, the world scoffed. The polls were neither free nor fair, and many of the country’s top leadership positions were reserved for members of the military. Nevertheless, Burma is blossoming. Opposition leader Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest in late 2010 and will be running for a seat in parliament in by-elections this April. Cease-fires have been signed with several ethnic rebel groups, most notably last week with the Karens who had been fighting the central Burmese authority for more than six decades. Politics, once a word whispered in secret for fear of imprisonment, are now discussed in the open.

That’s not to say that serious problems, ranging from ethnic clashes in the northern hills and a largely unaccountable military to desperate poverty and a widening income gap, don’t remain. But it was in recognition of the recent changes that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Burma late last year, the first such high-level visit by an American in more than half a century. With the mass political-prisoner release on Friday, the bigger reward — normalized relations — was duly granted.

The remaining thorn in U.S.-Burma ties is by far the biggest: the U.S. (along with other Western nations, Japan and Australia) has maintained widespread trade and aid sanctions on Burma, along with financial and travel restrictions on members of the Burmese regime and their families. While considered morally right by many Americans, the sanctions have lost their teeth in recent years as Burma’s neighboring countries have poured investment into natural-resource sectors, snapping up dams, minerals and natural gas.

Even if the sanctions have been compromised by a tide of Asian investment, the generals that ruled (and still, to a degree, continue to rule) Burma could not have enjoyed their status as international outcasts. For one, it presumably became a bit embarrassing for Burmese military progeny not to be able to jaunt off to the West for shopping sprees, like they do in Singapore or Bangkok. Perhaps a craving for respectability has spurred the changes currently unfolding in Burma. The calculus from the bunkered new Burmese capital, Naypyidaw, appears clear: we reform, you lift sanctions.

When I was in Burma during Clinton’s visit late last year, nearly everyone I spoke to, from opposition activists to senior diplomats, seemed to believe that it was simply a matter of when sanctions would be lifted, not whether they would be. What everyone seemed to be waiting for were the political-prisoner amnesties.

Yet the outside community began to act even before the latest emptying of jails. Earlier this month, Australia announced that it would begin relaxing some financial and travel sanctions on government tourism representatives and former members of the regime. Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd just wrapped up a trip to Burma, as did Britain’s William Hague. Their French counterpart Alain Juppé is visiting now, as is Mitch McConnell, the influential U.S. Senator who has shepherded Burma-sanctions legislation through U.S. Congress. The red carpet, so long reserved in Burma for leaders of other minor dictatorships, is finally getting good use.

Meanwhile, the worriers worry. They note, accurately, that Burma has gone through many a round of dissidents being freed only to be jailed again. Friday’s historic releases came by way of suspended sentences (as opposed to full pardons), which give the government a legal way to lock people up again to finish their full jail terms should they prove too outspoken.

There is also the issue of unity in the cabinet of President Thein Sein, who retired from the military to take up his new position and who has surprised the international community with his willingness to helm reform after reform. When political prisoners locked up at Burma’s notorious Insein jail in commercial capital Rangoon were freed on Friday, crowds gathered to chant “Long live Thein Sein,” according to veteran exile journalist and former activist Aung Zaw. But not everyone in Naypyidaw is as inclined to open up as Thein Sein. Suu Kyi herself warned recently that the reforms are not irreversible.

And practically speaking, the lifting of any American sanctions — the reward that Thein Sein and his supporters seem to so desperately crave — will not happen immediately, even if high-level American officials were to endorse such a move. Such decisions will have to make their way through U.S. Congress. Still, in a sign of just how much things have changed, another American delegation is slated to visit Burma, possibly next month. Who’s going? U.S. businessmen.