On April 22, the European Union lifted all sanctions on Burma except an arms embargo. The sanctions had already been eased in April 2012, which left open the option of easily putting them back into place. The European Union’s move to lift them altogether sends a strong signal of support for the reform-oriented government in Burma.
The European Union made this decision at a controversial time, just days after the BBC received footage of soldiers standing by as Buddhists attacked Muslims in Burma. The decision also came close on the heels of a Human Rights Watch report accusing the Burmese public forces of permitting and even joining in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority. Human rights groups decried the European Union’s decision to give up sanctions as a point of leverage when such human rights abuses are ongoing.
Yet Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi supported the European Union’s decision, telling the BBC, “It is time we let these sanctions go…I don’t want to rely on external factors forever to bring about national reconciliation which is the key to progress in our country.”
Meanwhile, the European Union’s decision puts pressure on the United States, which eased its sanctions in May 2012 but left in place the underlying legislation that would allow them to be reinstated easily. The United States has maintained its Specially Designated Nationals (“SDN”) list for Burma, although it recently issued a General License to allow U.S. persons to conduct business with four Burmese banks on the SDN list. Two are owned by the best-known “cronies” of the former military regime – both men are on the SDN list — and the other two are owned by the government. The General License will make it easier for U.S. companies to conduct business in Burma, but belies the U.S. government’s earlier indications that it could engage with Burma without supporting those who made fortunes through their alliances with the former junta.
The United States continues to strengthen economic ties with Burma in other ways. For example, the U.S. Acting Trade Representative just visited Burma to begin discussions on a framework agreement covering trade and investment between the two countries. It is unclear whether the U.S. will lift its sanctions in the near-term, especially since this would require that Congress act to unwind the underlying legislation. But it is clear that the United States will continue to build closer economic ties with Burma, following the footsteps of Europe.