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The Journal Gazette

  • Ye Win Latt

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 1:00 am

The Burmese tightrope

Sanctions targeted at military also harm civilian leadership

Ye Win Latt

Ye Win Latt, a Fort Wayne resident since 2008, holds degrees from Indiana University-Bloomington and Indiana Wesleyan University.

A day after Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, issued a news release supporting legislation that would impose targeted sanctions and travel restrictions on senior Myanmar military officials, Myanmar Ambassador to the U.S. Aung Lynn and First Secretary and Counselor Swe Sett visited Indiana to meet with Burmese community in Fort Wayne.

Although the ambassador and his colleague did not specifically discuss the talks about targeted sanctions against Myanmar, they argued Burmese residents need to reach out to local representatives and make their voices heard. Among Indiana representatives, Young has been actively engaged in finding tangible action to end the crisis in western Burma.

Young's constituency has the two largest Burmese communities in the United States – Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. An area of  south Indianapolis has earned the nickname “Chindianapolis” for its large Chin community; Fort Wayne is known as “Little Burma” for its diverse Burmese population. In the two cities combined, Indiana has more than 20,000 Burmese.

The talk of re-imposing sanctions comes less than a year after President Barack Obama's administration lifted remaining sanctions on Myanmar in October 2016. The sanctions imposed between 2003 and 2016 were in response to ethnic cleansing against minorities, particularly the Karen, Karenni and Shan minorities. This time, it is the Rohingya, a group of people in western Myanmar regarded as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangaladesh.

According to figures from the United Nations, since Aug. 25, Bangladesh has received more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. The recent exodus is due to armed conflict between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and Myanmar's army in the Maungdaw district of western Myanmar.

Myanmar blames the ARSA for initiating an assault on security forces last October and again this August. In response, Myanmar launched a “clearance operation” against ARSA. The Myanmar army's retaliation became the subject of international criticism due to its large-scale operation that affects civilians. Myanmar believes international media are blowing the operation out of proportion in support of refugees.

Back in 2003, it was the world against military dictators, with the exceptions of Russia, China and North Korea, which backed Myanmar's government. Most western nations, including the United States, imposed sanctions to punish the then-military government. Burmese communities in exile supported the sanctions.

Now, with Myanmar's government headed by Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as de facto leader, whether or not to support the sanctions is not simply black and white. Considering the Suu Kyi administration has been in power for less than two years, a harsh measure could stall long-awaited progress. Foreign investment in Myan-mar has already slowed in recent months, and new sanctions would further destroy investors' confidence in Myanmar's future.

Myanmar's long-term allies in Washington are cautioned not to be an obstacle to Myanmar's leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi. She still enjoys strong support from U.S. officials but is expected to do more toward creating a peaceful, prosperous and democratic country that respects the human rights of all of its people regardless of ethnicity and religion.

The proposed sanctions, as it seems now, would allow Myanmar's civilian government to use them as leverage when dealing with its military. The proposal also includes re-imposing the U.S. jade and rubies ban, codifying U.S.-Burma military-to-military cooperation restrictions, and restricting financial assistance on projects that partner with Burmese military-owned enterprises.

One certain thing about the newly proposed sanctions is that U.S. policy on Myanmar isn't going back to square one but seems to take a more pre-emptive approach for Myanmar's democratic reforms to be on track. It is a targeted sanction; a carefully crafted legislation meant to target perpetrators of human rights violations in Myanmar.

The drastic effect would be on the military-backed elite society that controls much of Myanmar's economy. This will signal that the world does not tolerate atrocities, and violators will be held accountable. Yet, the sanctions on Myanmar would have a bitter effect on the nation's progress and would, to an extent, hurt the civilian government that shares power with the military.