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Washington toughens its stance on Myanmar ahead of crucial visits

Old apartment blocks in Yangon. Only more reforms will ensure continued flow of foreign investment.//AFP

Old apartment blocks in Yangon. Only more reforms will ensure continued flow of foreign investment.//AFP

American politicians drum up pressure on the government, calling for further reforms

The scheduled visits of US Secretary of State John Kerry in August and President Barack Obama in November sparked hot debates among American lawmakers over the past weeks on what the US should do to ensure further reforms in the former authoritarian country.

The toughest call came from Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican party's leader in the Senate. In his speech last week, McConnell admitted that in many ways, Myanmar in 2014 scarcely resembles the nation that existed in 2003 when the US first enacted the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act (BFDA), which imposed a ban on all imports from the country. In the past three years, he said that the country has made significant strides forward in several key areas.

"However, even though the country has made commendable progress in a relatively short period of time, to many Burma of late appears stalled amidst a score of pressing challenges. These include continued conflict between the government and ethnic minorities, governmental restrictions on civil liberties and ongoing humanitarian issues in Rakhine State. All are serious concerns that command close attention. And related to all of these issues is the need for Burma to continue to bring the military under civilian control if it is to evolve into a more representative government," McConnell said.

Backing this up is the release of the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour's International Religious Freedom Report for 2013, which slammed the government for lack of freedom on religion. The comments came amid communal violence in Mandalay and other parts of the country. Religion-driven conflicts aside, Myanmar has not yet achieved the most-sought nationwide ceasefire with ethnic armed groups while ongoing fighting forces the relocation of more people. Local lawmakers are also in a tussle over the controversial proportional representation system, while political rallies for charter amendments continue.

Alexander Feldman, president and CEO of the US-Asean Business Council, who led a business mission to the country, commended the country for the past reform records. After discussions with political leaders, he is optimistic that the challenges would wither away.

"While work remains to be done to improve Myanmar's physical, soft and regulatory infrastructure, the government is committed to engaging with US business to continue streamlining the business environment and creating opportunities for Myanmar's people," Feldman said.

Economic reforms helped triple foreign direct investment (FDI) into Myanmar to more than US$4.1 billion in fiscal year 2013-14, which ended on March 31. Doubts linger, though, if this momentum will continue if several domestic challenges are not addressed.

Seeing no further sanctions against Myanmar, McConnell noted that ban on jade and ruby imports and sanctions on individuals deemed to be hindering further reforms would remain.

Earlier last month, Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for a range of new punitive measures against the government of President Thein Sein, including visa bans, an end to US-Myanmar military cooperation, and a serious look at whether to impose new economic sanctions.

"It is time that we take off the rose-coloured glasses and see the situation in Burma for what it is," said Chairman Ed Royce "We cannot continue to lavish more incentives on the government of Burma in hopes that it will do the right thing."

In his speech on Monday, Daniel R Russel, assistant secretary of US Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, echoed the White House's view that no other country in Asean shows as much promise as Myanmar, which has made a turn of historic proportions towards democracy and reform. Yet, he admitted that the turn is by no means complete and the success of its reform process is by no means certain. He said that both Kerry and Obama are monitoring how this process is proceeding.


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