Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western governments had failed to pressure the repressive Burmese government, signaling a potentially major shift in U.S. policy.
Clinton, at a news conference here, did not deny that easing sanctions was one of the ideas under consideration by the Obama administration as part of a major review. “We are looking at possible ideas that can be presented,” she told reporters and said that she had discussed the issue with Indonesia officials here.
“Clearly the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” she said, adding that the route taken by Burma’s neighbors of “reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them either.”
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is regarded as one of the world’s most oppressive nations. The National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide electoral victory in 1990, which the military leadership refused to accept. She has been held in confinement repeatedly since then.
Any move by the Obama administration to scale back sanctions on Burma could face strong opposition in Congress, where lawmakers have imposed a series of increasingly tougher restrictions on the Southeast Asian nation. The Bush administration also invested significant diplomatic capital into moving Burma for the first time onto the agenda of the United Nations Security Council, although proposed resolutions criticizing the junta’s behavior have been vetoed by Russia and China.
Vice President Biden last year was the key mover in the Senate of the Block Burmese JADE act, which renewed restrictions on the import of Burmese gems and tightened sanctions on mining projects there. The act also imposed new financial sanctions and travel restrictions on the junta’s leaders and their associates and created a post for a high-level envoy and policy coordinator for Burma.
But some humanitarian organizations have begun to question the sanctions policies. In an influential report issued in October, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group argued that humanitarian aid should begin to flow into the country and bans on Burmese garments, agriculture and fishery products and restrictions on tourism should be lifted.
“It is a mistake in the Myanmar context to use aid as a bargaining chip, to be given only in return for political change,” the report said. “Twenty years of aid restrictions — which see Myanmar receiving twenty times less assistance per capita than other least-developed countries — have weakened, not strengthened, the forces for change.”
While Clinton has been careful not to tip her hand on the direction of the policy review, she has used strikingly mild language about the Burmese government, describing “the unfortunate path” taken by Burma, leaving it “impervious to influence from anyone.”