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Thursday, September 8, 2011

U.S. Policy Towards Burma: Issues for the 112th Congress

Michael F. Martin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Derek E. Mix
Analyst in European Affairs

A robust discussion has arisen around U.S. policy towards Burma. Some Members of Congress, senior officials in the Obama Administration, noted Burma scholars, and representatives of various interest groups have weighed in on this discussion, offering their views on the merits of current U.S. policy towards Burma and what policy changes ought to be made.

Among the commentators, there is general agreement that more than 20 years of political and economic sanctions, and nearly two years of “pragmatic engagement,” have not led to the achievement of the stated goals of U.S. policy towards Burma—the release of all political prisoners from detention and the transfer power to a representative, democratically elected civilian government that will respect the human rights of the people of Burma, including its ethnic minorities. However, there is little agreement as to why U.S. policy has been unsuccessful and what needs to be done to increase the likelihood of achieving the stated goals.

Some analysts see the holding of parliamentary elections, the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November 2010, the formal dissolution of Burma’s military regime, and its replacement by a mostly civilian government as evidence of the advent of a new era in Burma. Others view these events as thinly veiled ruses designed to hide the continuation of repressive military rule behind the veneer of seemingly civilian institutions. Both groups of commentators point to various recent events to support for their recommendations for the conduct of U.S. policy towards Burma.

Other factors complicate the formulation of U.S. policy towards Burma. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member, has called for the end of all sanctions on Burma. The European Union recently lifted its visa ban for several senior officials in the new Burmese government. Neighboring China, India, and Thailand have recently increased their investments in Burma, particularly in its energy sector. Inside Burma, the outbreak of fighting between the Burmese military and several ethnic-based militias has reportedly led to serious human rights abuses and another wave of Burmese refugees in the region.

The current discussions have generally focused on three related issues: (1) the effectiveness of the U.S. sanctions regime; (2) the value of high-level meetings with Burmese officials; and (3) the ability to coordinate policies towards Burma with other nations. To some, the basic premise of U.S. policy is fundamentally flawed, and a completely new approach is needed. To others, the main problem with U.S. policy has been in its lack of focus and inadequate implementation. Some question whether or not any U.S. policy can have an appreciable impact on Burma’s military leaders and foster progress towards U.S. objectives in Burma.

The installation of a new government in Burma and the appointment of Derek J. Mitchell to serve as the first Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma are viewed as creating a “honeymoon period” in which Congress and the Obama Administration can review and, if desired, adjust U.S. policy towards Burma. The genesis of U.S. policy towards Burma was largely driven by Congress passing legislation after particularly egregious actions by Burma’s ruling military junta. The 112
th Congress is currently considering legislation (H.J.Res. 66 and S.J.Res. 17) that would renew certain import restrictions contained in the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003. If the history of the development of U.S. policy towards Burma is indicative, any dramatic new development in Burma—either good or bad—could prompt Congress into action.

Date of Report: August 8, 2011
Number of Pages: 61
Order Number: R41971
Price: $29.95

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