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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

U.S. Policy Towards Burma: Issues for the 113th Congress

Michael F. Martin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

U.S. policy towards Burma has undergone a discernible shift in its approach since a quasi-civilian government was established in March 2011. While the overall objectives of U.S. policy towards the country remain in place—the establishment of civilian democratic government based on the rule of law and the protection of basic human rights—the Obama Administration has moved from a more reactive, “action-for-action” strategy and a skeptical and cautious attitude towards the newly created Union Government and Union Parliament to a more proactive mode. The new approach is designed to foster further reforms based on some form of partnership with the Union Government, headed by President Thein Sein.

During the last two years, the Obama Administration has conducted much of its policy towards Burma using existing constitutional and legal authority, while regularly consulting with Congress about the actions taken. The 112
th Congress passed five laws containing provisions related to U.S. policy in Burma. Three laws—P.L. 112-33, P.L. 112-36, and P.L. 112-163—extended the general import ban contained in Section 3 of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 (2003 BFDA, P.L. 108-61) which is subject to annual renewal. P.L. 112-74 placed restrictions on the use in Burma of appropriated funds for certain Defense and State Department programs. P.L. 112-192 granted the Secretary of the Treasury the option of instructing the U.S. Executive Director at any international financial institution to “vote in favor of the provision of assistance for Burma by the institution, notwithstanding any other provision of law” if the President has determined that to do so is in the national interest of the United States. The 113th Congress will have the opportunity to decide what role it will play in the future course of U.S. policy in Burma.

The Administration’s Burma policy in 2011 and 2012 may be characterized as the combination of increasing engagement with Burma’s Union Government, Union Parliament, and selected opposition groups, and the waiving or easing of many of the existing economic sanctions imposed on Burma by various laws, including the 2003 BFDA and the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-286). However, the Administration may decide that it is approaching the limit of actions it can take with regard to easing of sanctions without Congress passing new legislation.

Some critics of the Obama Administration say that it has moved too fast and too far in easing the existing sanctions, given the continued reports of serious human rights violations and significant restrictions on civil liberties. Other critics think the Administration has moved too slowly and cautiously in waiving sanctions, hindering the reform process in Burma and blocking greater U.S. participation in Burma’s economic development.

Certain key issues with regard to Burma’s political situation may be important to the future course of U.S. policy in Burma. First, President Thein Sein’s vision for Burma’s “disciplined democracy” has not been clearly elaborated, and his commitment to further reforms remains untested. Second, the view of Burma’s military leadership on political reforms is uncertain. Third, the path for possible reconciliation between the country’s Burman majority and various ethnic minorities is unclear.

Date of Report: March 12, 2013
Number of Pages: 48
Order Number: R43035
Price: $29.95

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