Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi Election Should Not Cause the US to Lift Economic Sanctions on Burma

On April 1, Myanmar held parliamentary elections, only the country's third elections in the last 50 years. On Wednesday, the government confirmed that democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 43 of the 45 seats of the upper and lower houses of Parliament and regional assemblies. Suu Kyi has been on under house arrest for the past 22 years, since  winning the 1990 elections.  If the regime actually allows Suu Kyi to return to political life this time, it would reflect a remarkable change towards a more democratic Myanmar.

In response to Myanmar’s progress, the U.S. has already lifted the travel ban on Myanmar’s senior leaders, agreed to the opening of a USAID office in the country, removed restrictions of American NGOs from entering, and plan the appointment of the first American ambassador to Myanmar since 1990.Further the US is set to end its restriction of United Development Fund activities in the country, and to remove sanctions in the country’s financial, agricultural, tourism, and telecommunication sectors. 

Despite these changes, the U.S. still holds economic sanctions against Myanmar, including sanctions against the country’s rare earth, timber, and mining industries, as well as restrictions against arms sales. These sanctions have thus far been successful in applying pressure on the regime’s economy.

The U.S. must continue to apply this pressure on the regime, using economic sanctions to compel the government to make more concrete changes toward democracy and, more specifically, toward ending its human rights abuses.

Myanmar still has a long list of human rights reforms it must address. While Myanmar released 318 political prisoners at the end of last year, there are still an estimated one thousand that remain imprisoned. Widespread and systematic violence — which could be labeled ethnic cleansing and genocide — against the Kachin continues. General human rights abuses — such as prison conditions — continue unaddressed as well. Myanmar's government officials and military still have a number of important changes to undertake before U.S. officials should entertain negotiations with the country.

The U.S. has already lifted political and aid sanctions much too rapidly. Now, the only bargaining chip remaining is the economic sanctions.

Before the U.S. even thinks about lifting these sanctions, it must demand that Myanmar release the remaining political prisoners without delays, end violence against ethnic minorities and provide assistance to them to reinstate the populations into mainstream society, and reform its abusive practices towards  freedom of expression and the right to assemble for peaceful protests.

Although Suu Kyi’s reemergence into Myanmar’s political life and the NLD’s victory in the elections signal positive changes in Myanmar politics, we cannot be too sure how long they will last, whether the government will keep its word, or whether the country’s political changes may remain stagnant after this election.

According to Aung Din, director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, “We know that they [the U.S.] need to do something, some kind of positive gestures, but if they do it very quickly, and make it too generous, it will only undermine the democratic forces in the country."