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U.S. Eases Sanctions as Myanmar Passes Democratic Reforms

September 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Though significant steps have been taken, tensions remain between reform and hardline Burmese politicians. Margaret Warner talks to U.S. Campaign for Burma's Jennifer Quigley and Open Society Foundation's Maureen Aung-Thwin for more on what the U.S. role should be in encouraging Myanmar's path to greater democracy.
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MARGARET WARNER: Today, the Treasury Department removed Myanmar’s president and house speaker from a list of individuals barred from doing business or owning property in the U.S.

I’m joined now by Burmese-born Maureen Aung-Thwin, who was taken off the Myanmar government’s blacklist in the last few weeks. She directs the Open Society Institute’s Burma Project.

And Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. Both were at the congressional medal ceremony today.

And welcome to you both.

Let’s reflect a moment on this moment. How big an event is this not just for Aung San Suu Kyi, but for Myanmar?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN, Open Society Foundations: It’s huge. It’s huge.

And for Burmese, that — it’s probably the biggest gathering of Burmese in — at least in the capital. And I have a feeling most of the Burmese I saw there, including myself, had never really been to the Rotunda.

So it was like a stunning, very emotional event for us, and to see her there, you know, right there in Washington.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Jennifer Quigley, how far do you think Burma, Myanmar, has moved really since her release from house arrest less than two years ago?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY, U.S. Campaign for Burma: The moves have been definitely significant.

I definitely feel as if there has been such a change from Than Shwe, the former dictator, to president Thein Sein.

And so even though he was a member of that regime, we’re definitely seeing a drastic difference in policy approach.

And the release of political prisoners, Allowing Suu Kyi not only to win an election, but then to be seated in parliament, something she was denied from 1990, are some very significant positive steps.

And so, as Clinton said, there are many to go that still sort of need to be addressed. But, you know, it is sort of a moment to appreciate sort of how far we have come in the last few years.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Maureen Aung-Thwin, what difference has it made for you, who’s been on a blacklist for a long time, not allowed to go back to Myanmar, or for the dissidents who’ve been released? Is it a palpable difference?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: Oh, it’s very palpable.

Well, you know, I have been on the black list for over 20 years, so that means I was denied being able to go back to where I was born. So before they took me off the blacklist, they actually gave me a visa. So I have been back three times.

But it was for work, you know, for my foundation. So I couldn’t, like, spend my time just basking in family and all that. So it was — but it was still a very palpable experience for me.

I didn’t think I may see them again before — you know, because it just seemed like they were so entrenched that it would never change.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, but I have read that some dissidents who were released can’t get visas to leave. Is that the case?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: The passports, yes, right.

In fact, Min Ko Naing, probably the second most — the biggest democracy icon after Aung San Suu Kyi, is being honored tomorrow by the National Endowment for Democracy. And they wouldn’t give him his passport.

Then, finally, they said they would give it, and he said, what about my colleagues who — my colleague ex-political prisoners who were not given passports, so that they could travel, like other people can get?

MARGARET WARNER: So, Jennifer Quigley, from your assessment — and you both have been studying this country for a long time — how committed do you think this new government is to continuing to advance on the path to greater openness?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: I think the issue the government is no longer a monolith. We used to look at his as they were one voice. They’re no longer one voice.

And so, what they have been divided into is the reformers. And, so, yes, we truly believe that those who are reform-minded believe in moving along this path towards more reforms led by President Thein Sein and the speaker of the lower house, Shwe Mann.

The problem is that the two of them are not united and actually compete with each other.

And then you have the larger group, which is the hard-liners, who don’t want to see any of their power evaporated, particularly members of the military.

And so the big concern that we have had so far is that the reforms that have taken place have not threatened in any way the power base of those who have power currently.

And the real test for whether these reforms will move forward is reformers convincing hard-liners, and hard-liners actually giving up some of their power.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, this brings us to the question of U.S. leverage.

The United States has, as we pointed out, been easing sanctions bit by bit, in exchange for certain reforms.

Well, first of all, do you think that’s been a wise strategy? Do you think it’s been an effective one?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: That they have had it or that they have been easing it?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, both.

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: Yes.

I definitely agree with what Suu Kyi said yesterday about, it was a great political leverage for us. But — and to ease it, yes, I definitely think that it just — it was that critical time where I think they knew, the regime knew that it had to change.

So it was the time when President Obama said, you know, if you open your fist, or whatever we will put it, we will give out our hand, and he did.

MARGARET WARNER: So then the question is, of course, should the U.S. do more?

 

Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday seemed to be suggesting, if not lifting them entirely, suspending them, something fairly dramatic.

Sen. Jim Webb, who has been in the forefront of this, said, you have to let people see the economic benefits of a free society.

What’s your view on that?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: I mean, we’re not in agreement at U.S. Campaign for Burma in the sense that we feel as if there’s disparity between where the reforms are taking place and who’s benefiting from them.

And you’re seeing that in more urban centers, and you’re not seeing that in rural areas or in the conflict zones in ethnic minority territory.

So our concern is that you need to continue to send a signal that there needs to be reform on a greater front than there has been so far, and that should be tied to the lifting of further sanctions.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that greater U.S. business investment in Burma or, in fact, allowing it and allowing it to flourish is going to be good for that process?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: We feel as if it’s going to have both a positive and a negative impact, because we advised that there be certain investments prohibited, particularly the extractive industries, which are…

MARGARET WARNER: Such as?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Natural gas, teak, mining, and hydropower. Most of those are in ethnic minority territories in which conflict has been reaching for decades.

And so it has and will continue to exacerbate human rights abuses and conflict if the U.S. doesn’t make sure that we — if we are going to have a net positive impact with our investment, as opposed to a net negative, we’re going to have to monitor and watch and do human rights due diligent work on companies that invest in sectors that are known to fuel conflict in Burma.

MARGARET WARNER: And so the other thing Aung San Suu Kyi said yesterday is the U.S. has to stay engaged on a lot of different fronts. She mentioned rule of law.

What more, other than the sanctions debate, can the U.S. do to actually keep helping, encouraging Myanmar on this path?

MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN: Well, you know, the United States used to have quite — was quite engaged, very engaged in Burma, which used to be like the flagship cosmopolitan place in all of Southeast Asia.

So they had — Fulbright was really a huge program. They had a lot of exchanges. Burmese could, go come out and be educated in the States, I mean, all the time, and lots of researchers going back in. And there was a lot of cultural exchange and people-to-people exchange.

And I think that has been lacking for many decades, for 50 years. And I think that will — then you don’t even have to go into sanctions or anything. You — I think that can really help bridge the gap again. It was a very nice relationship that Burma and America had.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you both very much, and more — much more to watch in the months and years ahead.

And you can watch more of yesterday’s conversation between Suu Kyi and Secretary of State Clinton. Find a link to the Institute of Peace website on our website.