By Francis Wade
The US government should expand its sanctions against the Burmese government to include all businessmen whose industries and capital help to maintain the status quo in the military-dominated country, US campaigners have argued.
Despite a ruling that requires to the US to target anyone perceived to be providing “substantial economic and political support for the regime”, many business cronies remain off Washington’s sanctions list, claims the US Campaign for Burma (USCB).
And although US criticism of the government is amongst the most vitriolic, “the cronies targeted by the Department of Treasury are much fewer in number than those who are sanctioned by the governments of Australia and the European Union”, the group adds.
While the EU has spoken of a “greater civilian character” of the Burmese government, which came to power in March and is dominated by disrobed junta members, the US has trodden a more cautious line.
Last week it announced it would back a UN investigation into rights abuses in Burma after prompting from opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi, but USCB says it must go further.
The group’s calls are echoed by Australia-based economist Sean Turnell, who has consistently urged more precision targeting of international sanctions on Burma. He says the emphasis of USCB’s call is correct.
“It’s an unchallenged fact that wherever you look democratic transition around the world, people have gone after the cronies,” he told DVB. “These people are so aligned with the Burmese government that they are beyond being a useful influence.”
Instead, he advocates for a sharpening of sanctions that target cronies, but leaves the door open for the “productive economic class” to manoeuvre. “The US should push on this one and identify these groups [cronies] and minimise collateral damage” on other sectors of society that could prove useful in reforming the country and its economy, he says.
The first set of US sanctions were implemented in the mid-1990s but were upgraded with the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act of 2008, which specifically targets regime, military and judicial figures with financial penalties.
Yet they remain too broad, Turnell says, while US policymakers have suffered from a degree of complacency. “They have the attitude that ‘we’ve covered that problem’”, Turnell says, but are perhaps unaware of the ability of certain officials to deflect punitive measures.
Aung Din, head of USCB, said in a statement yesterday that wealthy regime cronies such as Tay Za, head of the Htoo Trading conglomerate, and Aung Ko Win, who owns Kanbawza Bank, “constitute the second most powerful class in Burma just under the ruling regime.”
Many of them profited from a large-scale privatisation of Burma’s state-owned property last year, prior to the elections, when legitimate competition for lucrative industry appeared absent.
The line between businessman and politician has also been blurred in the new government, with figures like Khin Shwe, who owns the Zay Kabar construction company, a member of the election-winning Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), who won a seat in the upper house.