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Keep the Pressure on Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi, center, at a peace conference in August, in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.CreditRomeo Gacad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Editorial Board
September 13, 2016

When Myanmar’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, meets with President Obama and members of Congress in Washington this week, one of the items for discussion will be easing the remaining American sanctions on Myanmar. That may be a tempting move, given recent efforts by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to end ethnic conflict and the persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, but it would be a mistake to lift all remaining sanctions now.

Myanmar has made important progress on democratic reform, culminating with the victory of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party last November in the country’s first free election in a quarter century. And Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has taken steps to heal Myanmar’s ethnic divisions. On Aug. 31, she convened a peace conference to bring together the country’s armed ethnic groups in hopes of ending decades of conflict. This month, at the invitation of her government, a team led by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, began looking into the plight of the Rohingya.

This is an important step given Myanmar’s dismal human rights record. The oppression of the Rohingya, who are deprived of basic rights, including citizenship and freedom to worship and marry, is appalling. More than 120,000 Rohingya remain detained in government camps. Thousands have fled the country, many into the hands of traffickers. The use of forced labor in Myanmar, including sex trafficking, is widespread. In June, the Obama administration listed Myanmar among the world’s worst offenders in human trafficking.

Unfortunately, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s new government has limited ability to tackle these problems because it is hobbled by the country’s 2008 Constitution, which gives Myanmar’s military the upper hand by reserving a quarter of the seats in Parliament for the military, empowering the military to appoint the ministers of defense, home affairs and border affairs, and to dissolve the government during a national emergency. Secretary of State John Kerry warned in May that the key to lifting the remaining sanctions is “the current Constitution. It needs to be changed.”

Apparently, some of Myanmar’s lawmakers agree, and they believe that sanctions are still needed to keep the pressure on military leaders. Last month, U Hla Moe, a senior official in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, explained that “the sanctions are imposed for those who are obstructions to the country’s democratic movements.”

The Obama administration has progressively eased sanctions as Myanmar has moved toward democracy. In May, the administration lifted a broad range of sanctions, including against state-run banks and businesses. But, until there is constitutional reform that can deliver a durable democracy without military control, the remaining bans on trade and investment with Myanmar’s Department of Defense, armed groups and individuals who do business with the military, including in the lucrative gems trade, should remain in place.

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