Just five years ago, Burma’s largest city of Yangon was the stage of a vicious crackdown on tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and their supporters who were calling for economic and political reform. At least 21 people died, as security forces shot and beat the saffron-robed protesters; thousands were detained, and many were tortured and sentenced to hard labor.
The atrocities at that time led then-U.S. President George W. Bush to slap additional sanctions on Burma’s notoriously repressive regime.
Over the past decades, there has been a long list of American sanctions on Burma (also known as Myanmar).
They include visa bans, financial restrictions, prohibitions on importing Burmese goods, banning new investments in Burma, and constraints on U.S. assistance to impoverished Burma.
But since Burma’s ruling generals handed over power to a nominally civilian Union government last year, and the wave of political reforms that have followed—including the release of a large number of political prisoners—Western governments have been eager for signals of greater change. Particularly since Burma has turned away from China and is looking to the West; the U.S. and other governments have been waiting to renew economic ties and help the once isolated nation develop.
The U.S. State Department has now said it will remove some of its longstanding sanctions against Burma in light of the successful multiparty by-elections that took place on April 1.
Despite reports of irregularities, the previously outlawed National League of Democracy party won 43 out of the 45 available seats. And most significantly, Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD’s iconic leader, will take a seat in Parliament. This is seen as a momentous milestone for the Nobel Peace laureate who spent the better part of 20 years a political prisoner.
The State Department has noticed and is rewarding country’s leaders. A statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her government will begin the “process of a targeted easing of our ban on the export of U.S. financial services and investment as part of a broader effort to help accelerate economic modernization and political reform.”
“Sanctions and prohibitions will stay in place on individuals and institutions that remain on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts,” she added.
Clinton noted that Burma’s reform process is still uncertain and “has a long way to go” after decades of governance by the repressive junta.
The European Union also hinted earlier this week that it would likely ease some of its longstanding sanction during a meeting by EU foreign ministers on April 23, as well as providing 150 million euros ($196 million) in humanitarian assistance.
Human rights defenders and democracy activists, however, have said that it’s too soon to lift sanctions.
Soe Aung, spokesperson of Forum for Democracy in Burma, one of the biggest political coalitions in exile told The Epoch Times last month that the changes in Burma are precisely the result of sanctions from the West.
“If there were not such pressure, we would not have seen this situation right now.” He suggests that the determinant for lifting the sanctions should be the full general election in 2015, not this small, relatively insignificant by-election.
According to Human Rights Watch the military still has too much power. “[It has] something close to a monopoly on power—it runs the key ministries, does not answer to Parliament or the courts, and can veto constitutional changes.” In addition, the constitution gives the military the right to appoint 25 percent of seats in Parliament and it gives the chief of the army the power to appoint and dismiss the president.
In terms of the military’s control over the country’s economic resources, the situation is similar. “[It] continues to monopolize vast sectors of Burma’s economy and controls resources Burma earns from exporting natural resources,” according to Human Rights Watch.
The rights group therefore calls last Sunday’s by-elections a step forward, but not a real test of a commitment to reform. The 43 seats won by Suu Kyi and her NLD, represent less than 7 percent of a total of 664 seats in Parliament.
“Given the small number of seats involved, these by-elections should not be touted as a serious test of Burma’s commitment to democratic reform. The real test is whether the new Parliament can reform repressive law and civilians can assert authority over the military, which continues to commit abuses in ethnic areas,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a release on March 30.