April 27, 2015
U.S. Relations with Burma: Key Issues for 2015
2014 was a mixed year for U.S. relations with Burma
(Myanmar). During his visit to Burma in November 2014,
President Obama praised President Thein Sein for the
release of child soldiers and political prisoners, and stated
that the democratization process in Burma was both “real”
and “incomplete.” Over 40 Representatives, however,
questioned decisions to undertake new initiatives in Burma
while reforms appear to have stalled or even reversed.
government, Burma’s parliament, and the UEC in hopes
that the 2015 elections will be “credible, transparent, and
inclusive.” U.S. election assistance to Burma has in part
been allocated to International Republican Institute (IRI)
and the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
2015 may be pivotal for Burma’s political reform and U.S.
relations with Burma. Burma is tentatively scheduled to
hold nationwide parliamentary elections in November, the
results of which many analysts see as a bellwether for the
prospects for further political reforms. Efforts to conclude a
nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) to end nearly six
decades of low-grade civil war will continue in 2015. The
Thein Sein government will likely have to address the
continuing ethnic crisis in Rakhine State and will likely
revise its initial plan to address the plight of the Rohingya.
Other pressing issues for Burma are the continued arrest
and detention of political prisoners and the incomplete
fulfillment of President Thein Sein’s “11 commitments”
made during Obama’s first visit in 2012 (see below).
The Thein Sein government, the Burmese military
(Tatmadaw), and representatives of 16 ethnic groups agreed
on a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) on March
31, 2015. The NCA’s conclusion awaits its formal approval
by the various participants in the negotiations. Leaders of
the 16 ethnic groups are scheduled to meet to discuss the
draft NCA in early May.
For the Obama Administration and Congress, 2015 may be
a crucial year for managing existing and new forms of
engagement. During his November 2014 visit, President
Obama announced the establishment of a Peace Corps
program and a joint labor relations program in Burma with
Denmark, Japan, and the International Labour Organization
(ILO). The 113th Congress authorized new military-tomilitary programs in Burma that are likely to begin after the
parliamentary elections, depending on how the elections are
conducted and their results.
Parliamentary Elections and Constitutional Reform
Burma is tentatively scheduled to hold nationwide
parliamentary elections in November 2015. Many observers
anticipate that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for
Democracy (NLD) party will emerge as the largest party in
the new parliament, if they participate in the election.
However, changes in Burma’s 2008 constitution backed by
the NLD and other opposition parties—including one that
would allow Aung San Suu Kyi to be eligible to become
President—are unlikely to be approved before the elections.
In addition, Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC),
which runs the elections, has placed some restrictions on
campaigning that may hinder the prospects of the
opposition parties and favor the ruling Union Solidarity and
Development Party (USDP). In contrast to the 2010
parliamentary elections, Burma has said it will allow
international observers in 2015.
The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) are working with the Thein Sein
Ceasefire Negotiations and Ongoing Low-Intensity
The ceasefire negotiations are being conducted by the Thein
Sein government’s Union Peace Working Committee
(UPWC) and the ethnic groups’ Nationwide Ceasefire
Coordination Team (NCCT). The draft NCA resolved many
issues, but does not address some of the more controversial
issues, such as the terms of post-ceasefire political dialogue,
the status of the ethnic militias, and the ceasefire’s code of
conduct for the Tatmadaw and the ethnic militias.
Meanwhile, low-intensity conflict continues in Kachin,
Mon, and Shan states. Fighting between the Burmese Army
and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army
(MNDAA) in the Kokang region of Shan State is
particularly intense. Although the MNDAA is a party to the
NCA negotiations, the Thein Sein government does not
recognize the organization as a legitimate party to the talks.
The Plight of the Rohingyas
In 2012, hundreds of Arakans (or Rakhines), a
predominately Buddhist minority in Burma’s western
Rakhine State, attacked Rohnigyas, members of a largely
Muslim minority, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of
Arakans and Rohingyas and the internal displacement of an
estimated 140,000 people, mostly Rohingyas. More than
two years later, over 100,000 displaced people remain in
camps, with limited access to international assistance,
education, or employment. United Nations Special
Rapporteur to Burma, Yanghee Lee, has described the
conditions in the existing camps as “deplorable.”
According to the Thein Sein government, the proper term
for the Rohingyas is “Bengalis,” because the government
considers most of them to be illegal immigrants from
Bangladesh. In July 2014, the Thein Sein government
announced a Rakhine State Action Plan (RSAP) that would
allow some of the Rohingyas citizenship (conditional on
their accepting being classified as “Bengalis” and providing
sufficient evidence of long-term residence in Burma), but
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U.S. Relations with Burma: Key Issues for 2015
would resettle the majority of the Rohingyas into permanent
“resettlement camps.” The RSAP has been condemned by
the United Nations and various international organizations
for violating international human rights agreements.
When Burma’s ruling military junta handed power to the
Thein Sein government in April 2011, approximately 2,000
political prisoners were imprisoned in Burma. Between
April 2011 and December 2013, President Thein Sein
pardoned or granted amnesty to over 1,100 political
prisoners to fulfill a pledge to release all political prisoners
by the end of 2013. However, the Assistance Association
for Political Prisoners (Burma) asserts that as of April 2015,
at least 172 political prisoners remain in jail, and “296
political activists are awaiting trial.” The status of political
prisoners matters for U.S. policy in part because the
termination of some U.S. sanctions on Burma still in place
is contingent on the unconditional release of all political
prisoners in Burma.
Thein Sein’s “11 Commitments” of 2012
Allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access
Establish U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Office
Allow “blacklisted” people to enter or leave Burma.
Initiate a process to assess the criminality of alleged political
Establish a ceasefire in Kachin State and a sustainable political
solution of differences with ethnic minorities.
Address the ethnic problems in Rakhine State.
Allow international humanitarian assistance into conflictaffected areas.
Sign the Additional Protocol to the U.N.’s Comprehensive
Stop arms trade with North Korea.
Obama’s New Initiatives
The White House announced two new initiatives during the
President’s November 2014 visit to Burma—the opening of
a Peace Corps program in Burma, and a joint program
involving Denmark and Japan, as well as the International
Labour Organization (ILO), to improve Burma’s system of
labor administration and “foster strong relations among
businesses, workers, civil society organizations, and the
Government of Myanmar through a stakeholder
The Obama Administration would like to enhance
engagement with the Tatmadaw. The National Defense
Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 ( P.L. 113-291)
authorized Defense Department funding for “consultation,
education, and training” in Burma on the laws of armed
conflict, civilian control of the military, defense institution
reform, humanitarian and disaster assistance, and
improvements in medical and health standards. The
Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act,
2015 (P.L. 113-235) prohibits use of State Department
funding for certain forms of military assistance to Burma,
including International Military Education and Training
(IMET) and the Foreign Military Finance (FMF) program.
President Thein Sein has reportedly pressed the United
States to enhance its engagement with the Tatmadaw. On
June 25, 2014, the United Nationalities Federal Council of
Burma (UNFC), a coalition of ethnic organizations with
armed militias, wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry and
ex-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel opposing any
military-to-military training programs in Burma. Aung San
Suu Kyi reportedly also urged President Obama not to
pursue greater military engagement until after the 2015
parliamentary elections. U.S. engagement with the
Tatmadaw is also controversial in part because of ongoing
reports of serious human rights abuses by the Tatmadaw.
10. Combat human trafficking.
Implications for Congress
11. Make government more open and accountable.
The 114th Congress will have the opportunity to weigh in
on the conduct of U.S. policy toward Burma in 2015.
Within 180 days of the enactment of the NDAA, the
Secretary of Defense is to provide Congress with a “report
on military-to-military engagement between the United
States Armed Forces and the Burmese military.” P.L. 113235 requires that the Secretary of State provide a report to
Congress within 90 days of enactment “detailing steps
taken by the United States and other international donors to
protect human rights and address conflict in Rakhine State.”
Congress may also choose to press the Obama
Administration for progress reports on Thein Sein’s “11
commitments,” the status of political prisoners, and the
prospects for free and fair parliamentary elections in 2015.
Thein Sein’s “11 Commitments”
During President Obama’s first visit to Burma in November
2012, President Thein Sein made “11 commitments.” (see
shaded box). In a September 2014 Fact Sheet, the State
Department stated, “In a May 2013 visit to the United
States, President Thein Sein and his senior ministers
reaffirmed their intention to uphold these commitments,
though as of August 2014, many of them remain only
partially fulfilled.” Assessments of progress in fulfilling the
commitments vary, but according to one advocacy NGO,
Thein Sein has fulfilled only one of the 11 commitments
(signing the Additional Protocol), partially fulfilled 6, and
not fulfilled 3. The status of the last commitment—arms
trade with North Korea—is uncertain.
Michael F. Martin, email@example.com, 7-2199
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