July 9, 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.” In a letter to President Obama, however,
41 Members of the House questioned administration
decisions to undertake new initiatives in Burma while
reforms appear to have stalled or even reversed.
Burma is scheduled to hold nationwide parliamentary
elections on November 8, 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 have run into problems. Given the current refugee
and migrant crisis in the Andaman Sea, the Thein Sein
government may try to address the continuing ethnic crisis
in Rakhine State. 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.
The 113th Congress authorized new military-to-military
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
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. Proposed 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—were rejected by the
Union Parliament in July. 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
government, the Union 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).
Ceasefire Negotiations and Ongoing
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.
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.
Leaders of the 16 ethnic groups met in early May and again
in early June, when they proposed 15 amendments to the
draft NCA. In addition, the ethnic groups appointed a new
negotiating team to continue negotiations with the Thein
Sein government and the Tatmadaw. The new negotiating
team met with the Thein Sein government’s chief negotiator
Aung Min in early July. Aung Min reiterated his side’s
opposition to any changes in the draft NCA.
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
During the first quarter of 2015, an estimated 25,000
Rohingyas and Bangladeshis boarded boats in the Andaman
Sea, heading primarily to Indonesia and Malaysia to escape
persecution by the Thein Sein government. The Thein Sein
government initially denied these people were from Burma.
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand refused to allow them to
disembark in their territories. In response to international
pressure, however, all four nations then offered to provide
temporary assistance to address the crisis.
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. In addition, Burma’s Union
Parliament has passed legislation that restricts the marriage
and child-bearing rights of the Rohingyas.
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U.S. Relations with Burma: Key Issues for 2015
The Thein Sein government insists that the Rohingyas be
called “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, but would resettle the majority of
the Rohingyas into permanent “resettlement camps.” The
RSAP has been criticized 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 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 July 3, 2015, at least 138 political
prisoners remain in jail, along with 452 activists currently
awaiting trial for political actions. The termination of some
U.S. sanctions on Burma 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.
10. Combat human trafficking.
11. Make government more open and accountable.
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 1 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.
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, Japan, and the International Labour
Organization (ILO), to improve Burma’s system of labor
administration and improve worker-management relations.
The Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National
Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (P.L. 113291) 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.
Implications for Congress
Within 180 days of the enactment of the NDAA, the
Secretary of Defense was to have provided Congress with a
“report on military-to-military engagement between the
United States Armed Forces and the Burmese military.”
P.L. 113-235 required 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.” Neither report has yet been submitted to
Congress. 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.
Michael F. Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-2199
www.crs.gov | 7-5700