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Bipartisan push for easing sanctions on Burma

Bipartisan push for easing sanctions on Burma

Senators from both parties are now urging the Obama administration to drastically scale back U.S. sanctions on Burma in light of that country’s moves toward reform and democratization.

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), who has traveled to Burma twice in the past year, announced Monday morning that he now support the "suspension" of a host of sanctions against Burma and the ruling regime.

"Another major test for U.S. diplomacy is Burma," McCain said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I have traveled to Burma twice over the past year. And to be sure, they still have a long way to go, especially in stopping the violence and pursuing genuine reconciliation with the country’s ethnic minority communities. But the Burmese President and his allies in the government I believe are sincere about reform, and they are making real progress."

McCain praised the April elections that brought Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and many members of the National League for Democracy into power, despite some irregularities, and said they warranted U.S. temporary lifting of all economic sanctions except for the arms embargo against the Burmese military and targeted sanctions against individuals who have undermined human rights and the rule of law there.

"This would not be a lifting of sanctions, just a suspension. And this step, as well as any additional easing of sanctions, would depend on continued progress and reform in Burma," McCain cautioned.

He said the United States also must set up a regime for ensuring corporate responsibility in Burma as its economy opens and argued that U.S. businesses should still be barred from interacting with Burmese state-owned enterprises due to the risk of enriching hard-liners inside the Burmese system who are resisting reforms.

"U.S. businesses will never win a race to the bottom with some of their Asian, or even European, competitors. And they should not try," McCain said. "Rather, they should align themselves with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people — who want the kinds of responsible investment, high labor and environmental standards, and support for human rights and national sovereignty that define American business at its best."

McCain joins Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, who came out May 4 for lifting all economic sanctions against Burma in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that was also signed by his subcommittee counterpart Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Webb made his third trip to Burma in April.

"At this critical moment, it is imperative that our policy toward Burma be forward thinking, providing incentives for further reforms and building the capacity of reformers in the government to push for additional change," Webb and Inhofe wrote. "We urge the Administration to take action under its own authority, and seize this opportunity to support the Burmese people in their efforts to form an open, democratic government that respects and protects the rights of all."

The administration has made several small concessions to the Burmese following Clinton’s trip there last December, such as nominating Derek Mitchell to become the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in more than 20 years and restarting U.S.-Burmese cooperation on some development and counternarcotics programs.

In testimony before Webb’s subcommittee on April 26, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joe Yun detailed the administration’s actions to date, noting ongoing concern about the Burmese regime’s failings in the areas of human rights, and said the administration would take a slow but steady approach to easing sanctions further.

"We continue to emphasize that much work remains to be done in Burma and that easing sanctions will remain a step-by-step process. We have pursued a carefully calibrated posture, retaining as much flexibility as possible should reforms slow or reverse, while pressing the Burmese government for further progress in key areas," Yun said.

"We have serious and continuing concerns with respect to human rights, democracy, and nonproliferation, and our policy continues to blend both pressure and engagement to encourage progress in all areas."