WASHINGTON – The European Union's suspension of economic sanctions against Myanmar has riled exiled activists, who are urging the United States to press for further reforms by the dominant military before following suit.
The activists' opposition has exposed differences with democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose cause they have championed for more than two decades, which helped drive the sanctions in the first place.
Suu Kyi endorsed the EU move during a visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron to Yangon this month, but the activists are skeptical that sanctions could be re-imposed if Myanmar, also known as Burma, should backslide on the reforms. They say despite Suu Kyi winning a seat in parliament and the government reaching cease-fires with several ethnic armed insurgencies, the changes have yet to affect the lives of most citizens and rampant rights abuses continue.
"The EU has suspended sanctions knowing that its own benchmarks on Burma have not been met: the unconditional release of all political prisoners and a cessation of attacks against ethnic minorities," Soe Aung of the Forum for Democracy in Burma said by e-mail from Thailand. He accused the bloc of rushing to reward "murky reforms."
"It's illogical and a little hypocritical," Aung said.
While the influence of Myanmar activists who escaped the country in the years following a 1988 crackdown on democracy protesters is waning as the country opens up, they remain players in the debate. Last week, a group of them were lobbying opinion-makers in Washington, including at the State Department and the World Bank.
They say foreign investment before rule of law is established in the impoverished country would do more harm than good and benefit only the military and its cronies, who dominate the most lucrative sectors of the economy, such as timber, gemstones, oil and gas. Most of those resources are in, and need to be transported through, remote, ethnic-minority regions where hundreds of thousands of villagers have been displaced by fighting and where military abuses have been worst.
The Obama administration has taken those concerns on board. While the U.S. has led the charge in engaging Myanmar, it is moving more slowly than the EU in lifting sanctions. It is upgrading diplomatic ties and plans to allow U.S. investment in some sectors, but only in areas it judges would benefit the broader population.
Congressional committees that oversee U.S. policy toward Asia will take up the issue this week, hearing testimony by senior officials from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Treasury Department.
Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, a coalition of pro-democracy activists based in several Asian countries, said despite relaxation of restrictions on media and peaceful protests in Myanmar, the military still can act with impunity.
"People talk about President Thein Sein being reform-minded. That may be true. There's always been reform-minded people, even under the repressive system. But what we need in Burma is institutional changes, not changes based on personalities," she said in Washington.
She said the litmus test of political reform would be 2015 national elections, when the military's control of parliament will be challenged. Even after winning 43 of the 45 seats contested in recent special elections, Suu Kyi's party still controls fewer than 7 percent of the seats, and refused to take them up when parliament convened Monday due to a dispute over a single word in the oath of office — a sign of the formidable hurdles that remain in political reconciliation.
Western governments maintain it's important to act now to reward Thein Sein's government and to weaken the hand of conservatives in the military who oppose the democratic reforms.
The EU announced Monday it was suspending most of its sanctions, except an arms embargo, for six months to a year while it assesses the country's progress. The restrictions currently target more than 800 companies and nearly 500 people. Last week, Japan said it would take steps to forgive about $3.7 billion of Myanmar's debt and resume full-fledged development aid.
Former political prisoner Aung Din of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, who will testify at one of this week's U.S. congressional hearings, says once Western businesses move into Myanmar it will be difficult to reverse the sanctions, and democracy advocates will lose leverage over the military. He questioned whether Suu Kyi and her party were properly informed of the risks before she endorsed the EU move.
Since the special elections, the U.S. has eased financial sanctions to allow private groups to do charity work in Myanmar, and is soon expected to open the way for investment in sectors such as agriculture, tourism, banking and finance. One influential lawmaker, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., has suggested easing trade sanctions too.
Despite abiding Republican skepticism about the administration's willingness to reach out to authoritarian governments, the most influential lawmakers from both parties on Myanmar policy have broadly endorsed Obama's approach — a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington.
"To most observers on the outside, it's clearly time to negotiate a transition here," said Priscilla Clapp, a former charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. "You can't be so hard-nosed as not to compromise."