Background Briefing on the Administration's Policies Toward Burma Sanctions
MODERATOR: Thank you. Thanks, everyone for joining us here for a background conference call on Burma sanctions. I’m going to introduce our two Senior State Department Officials. For your records only, they are [Senior State Department Officials]. And from here on out, they will be known as Senior State Department Officials One and Two. And with that, let me turn it over to them for an opening statement, and then we’ll take some of your questions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, good afternoon, everyone. We really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you for a few minutes. Today, the U.S. Government has taken two measures in support of our calibrated approach to encouraging and strengthening the reform process in Burma. We’d like to explain what those two measures are.
Under something we call the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which we’ll refer to by its acronym, IEEPA, President Obama notified the Congress today that it is necessary to continue for one year the national emergency with respect to Burma. Also today, the Secretary of State terminated Presidential Proclamation 6925, also known by many as the 1996 visa ban. This allows us to facilitate greater bilateral engagement with Burmese stakeholders who are leading and contributing to reform efforts.
So my colleague here in a moment will address the broader authorities and requirements associated with IEEPA, but let me first just say a few words about our Burma policy and our specific actions today. From our perspective, Burma continues to make important progress in areas of core concern to the United States. This includes a range of actions, including the release of 850 political prisoners, efforts to pursue ceasefires with armed ethnic groups, and allowing freedoms of expression, assembly, and political participation. This has included overturning fiats from the previous military regime. Additional reforms include a review mechanism to assess remaining political prisoner cases and also allowing the creation of labor unions. There are many others, but these are among some that we wanted to highlight.
We’ve really welcomed this progress, the United States. We’ll continue political engagement and technical and capacity-building assistance to Burma’s reform efforts. We’re also substantially increasing our support of programs with an increased budget that advanced democratic reforms, promote national reconciliation, and facilitate broad-based economic growth in Burma.
We’ve also eased many sanctions. We’ve done so working very closely with Congress to reflect our move from quite general broad restrictions to a more calibrated engagement. And with the calibration, we target those who persist in hindering the country’s democratic transition. But it’s a fundamentally different approach to Burma than in past years. So the steps today acknowledge the important changes the Government of Burma has made, and encourage and empower the government and the people of Burma to continue on the path of political and economic reform.
Even as we recognize the government’s tremendous progress, we of course remain concerned that the nascent reforms remain vulnerable to elements within Burma that oppose a democratic transition. We’re also concerned about other challenges. This is a pretty bumpy process. For example, communal violence in Rakhine state; sectarian conflict elsewhere in the country; the need for greater efforts to achieve national reconciliation, something that’s alluded Burma since independence; the unconditional release of all political prisoners – not just the release, but that it be unconditional, and also severing all military ties with North Korea.
So what we’re doing in order to maintain the flexibility necessary to target specific bad actors and prevent backsliding on reform, even as we broadly ease sanctions at the same time, the President determined today that the national emergency with respect to Burma and the resulting authorities under IEEPA remain an important policy tool and should be continued for one year. For example, IEEPA provides the legal framework for us to exclude certain individuals or companies from benefiting from our renewed bilateral economic relations, because they either slow or thwart reform in Burma, commit serious human rights abuses, or propagate military trade with North Korea.
The United States will continue to review our sanctions policy as we monitor Burma’s progress on implementing additional political and economic reforms. And in fact, IEEPA authorities provide the U.S. Government with the tools necessary to waive certain restrictions to facilitate our support for reform.
We really want all of Burmese peoples, from Rangoon to Myitkyina in the north to other less developed areas of the country where many ethnic minorities reside in particular. We want them all to experience the benefits of inclusive economic development. And we recognize Burma’s successful transition to democracy depends in part on the government’s ability to deliver tangible benefits from its reforms.
Just a quick word on the presidential proclamation that the Secretary of State has terminated today – this is a perfect example of our review of our sanctions policies. The 1996 visa ban has been an important tool for many years to prevent travel to the United States by those associated with the former military regime who had impeded Burma’s transition to democracy. I think it’s quite well known that the regime had an abysmal human rights record and repressed all efforts towards democratization, including those of the pro-democracy National League for Democracy political party.
The visa ban of 1996, however, was imposed under conditions that have dramatically changed, especially over the last two years – 18 months to two years. Since 2011, the civilian-led government of Burma has demonstrated substantial progress on areas of concern that were emphasized in the 1996 proclamation. So in other words, they’ve answered the areas that we referred to in imposing that visa ban in 1996 – for example, most significantly in part, the legislative bi-elections a year ago, which the NLD contested and subsequently secured seats in Burma’s new parliament.
So terminating that visa ban from 1996 allows us to facilitate greater engagement with the Burmese by more narrowly defining who is prohibited from traveling to the United States. So it’s a very important message to the Burmese. Of course, at the same there are ineligibilities for visas under other restrictions – for example, the 2008 JADE Act – which will still apply. But it’s a much more narrow group that will be subject to those restrictions and review.
So that in brief are the two actions we’ve taken today. And then let me turn it over to my colleague on the IEEPA authorities.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be able to speak with you today briefly about a couple of the decisions that were made today.
I just want to start by echoing what [Senior State Department Official One] was saying about the steps we’re taking today acknowledging the progress that’s been made to date by the people and Government of Burma ensuring that we as the United States Government maintain the authority to target specific bad actors who may be impeding progress in Burma, and prevent backsliding. And I think the two actions we’re taking today really support exactly the policy that we’ve been pursuing for the last 18 months with Burma.
IEEPA is a baseline statute in U.S. law going back to the late 1970s that the United States Government has used since the late 1970s to impose and maintain targeted sanctions in a variety of contexts around the world. Under the IEEPA statute, in order to maintain both the targeted sanctions under sanctions regimes established pursuant to IEEPA, and also to maintain the flexibility to, in a calibrated and responsive way, build on and waive those sanctions over time, the President is obligated to make a determination each year about whether to renew a specific national emergency that underlines a specific targeted sanctions regime.
So in this case, the President made the determination to renew the national emergency with respect to Burma that allows us to maintain the sanctions regime that has been in place over the last year or two, and to continue to calibrate these sanctions appropriately going forward. The regime was last – the national emergency was last renewed last May. And in order to prevent the expiration of our sanctions, and to give us the flexibility to continue our calibrated approach to sanctions, easing and applying sanctions where appropriate to target specific bad actors, the President renewed the emergency, the emergency that was last renewed last May.
MODERATOR: All right. With that, operator, we’ll go ahead and open it up to questioning, if you could remind us of the instructions.
OPERATOR: Very good. Absolutely. Ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed into a queue. You may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. Again, *1 for questions at this time. And one moment for the first question.
Our first question, then, is from the line of Shaun Tandon with AFP. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Thanks for doing this call. Basically, I know that this was addressed a little bit, but obviously there’s been quite a bit of concern recently about particularly the situation with the Rohingya. I was wondering what you thought about the timing of this decision, why the decision was made to take it now, and whether there could be any concern about the message that that sends at a time of concern about the status of the Rohingya.
And also, just sort of a technical question: I know it was mentioned that the JADE Act still applies. I was wondering, in terms of the number of people who would be excluded through visas, is there sort of a ballpark figure on how many are excluded now that – with only the JADE Act still being in effect?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, thank you. First, I think the actions today are quite separate from our concern about the situation in Rakhine state, specifically with the stateless Rohingya. On the latter, we have profound concern about repression, about broad discrimination, and the violence that reemerged last year in June and July and again in October. Clearly a very troubling situation with over 115,000 displaced, most predominantly from the Rohingya community, although some ethnic Rakhine were also displaced. So we have humanitarian concerns regarding shelter, regarding regular access. We certainly have concerns about security and the path to status for the Rohingya who have been unrecognized and lacking citizenship for many, many years.
It’s a difficult, sensitive process inside the country, and we are strongly encouraging messages from senior authorities such as that by President Thein Sein on March 28th in which he talked about tolerance, mutual respect, and religious freedom. These are very important for the Burmese people to hear and to implement. And earlier this week, the government’s Rakhine Investigative Commission that’s been looking at that situation released a report with many recommendations, and we’re going to encourage implementation of those recommendations and efforts there to achieve longer-term solutions to a very difficult situation.
So our profound concerns are there and very well-known. The actions we have taken today, in the first instance with IEEPA, is an annual exercise. This – the renewal is only valid per year, and has to be renewed each year lest it lapse. And it dates back to 1997, I believe.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: 1997.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: ’97. With regards to terminating the proclamation, the effort here is to facilitate the kind of engagement that’s necessary to address concerns like the Rohingya. We have many of our officials now going to Burma on a regular basis to address these areas, to give advice and counsel, to provide assistance, to strengthen the reform efforts. And in order to facilitate that kind of engagement, we need Burmese stakeholders to come here to the United States. And the proclamation in 1996 was very, very broad, applied across the board to military officers, to officials, to many, many categories of government employees, to retirees who are receiving pensions from the government, and all of their immediate family members.
Now, clearly, many people in those categories are now contributing to the reform process and need to engage with our civil society here, with our Congress, with our NGOs and universities, and with the government. And so that’s why we’re trying to facilitate that.
In terms of what remains, it’s not just the JADE Act. There are a couple of other provisions in our law that apply and impose restrictions, including the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, Section 570 of the Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act. That goes back to 1997. But it is considerably more narrow. In the past, our restrictions applied to anyone who implemented, facilitated, or benefited from military authoritarian rule. Now, the more narrow category under those other restrictions are those specifically who impede the reform process, perpetuate human rights abuses, or propagate military trade with North Korea. So it’s a more active role now where we target bad actors as opposed to very broadly in the past where it applied across the board.
MODERATOR: I think we’re ready for the next question.
OPERATOR: Very good. We’ll go next to Matthew Pennington with AP.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi, and thanks for doing this call. Regarding the lifting of the visa restrictions, does this mean military officers will be able to travel to the U.S.? And I’m wondering what the Administration’s thoughts are now on promoting military-to-military engagement with the Burmese. And secondly, I think last week the EU lifted its sanctions altogether. So are you concerned that the international community is kind of out of sync within itself on its policy toward engaging Burma?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, thank you very much. First of all, what we’re doing today in terminating the Presidential Proclamation from 1996 doesn’t address the whole range of potential ineligibilities. All Burmese still need to apply for a visa and qualify. There are requirements under the Immigration and Nationalities Act, for example, but also these other restrictions that I’ve cited. Under the JADE Act, for example, there are provisions that will apply to many in the armed forces in Burma. You also need to take into consideration our specially designated nationals list that is maintained by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. All of the individuals on those lists, which include some military leaders and entities owned and operated by the military, would still be subject to these restrictions. We have the ability in many cases to seek waivers if it’s in the U.S. national interest to facilitate travel, but in general there are still these broad categories, including some in the military who would have to overcome those restrictions. We’re not going to issue visas in every case, and that’s why we have this calibrated approach.
Yes, we took note of the European action in the – with the EU members deciding to lift sanctions with some exemptions, as they seek a different relationship with Burma. I think we are largely in synch. Some of the specific legal tactics might differ a bit, but keep in mind in 2012 we substantially eased many of our core economic sanctions, including the existing ban on new investment, prohibition on the transfer of financial services, and also working very closely with Congress we eased back on our import ban with a couple of exceptions, jadeite and rubies, and we also normalized our relationship with the international financial institutions so that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund can reengage in Burma, which they are now doing, and helping reform.
I think from our perspective we see ourselves quite in synch with the European Union, certainly with the objectives that we’re trying to pursue.
MODERATOR: Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And as a reminder that it is *1 to place yourself into our queue. Our next question is from Paul Eckert with Reuters News Agency.
QUESTION: Hi, and thanks. I’ll just repeat my thanks. Two points. I was wondering, are there provisions that would prevent individuals who may not have been known or captured by some of these sanctions that are lifted but have been involved in the recent spates of communal violence. To the extent you can know them, are there ways of stopping them from getting through or traveling? That’s my question. I don’t have a second part, thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you very much. Let me just begin by echoing a point [Senior State Department Official One] had made. Obviously, all Burmese still have to apply for a visa to come to the United States, and there’s going to be a review of those visas consistent with the existing provisions of law that we walked you through. Those provisions of the law do provide authority to not allow into the United States – existing provisions of law do allow authority not to allow into the United States people who’ve participated directly in human rights abuses. And then as [Senior State Department Official One] was saying also, individuals who are on our SDN list, specific bad actors who are impeding progress in Burma or engaging in trade with North Korea or facilitating committing human rights abuses in Burma would not be eligible to be coming into the United States under the actions taken today.
MODERATOR: Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Steve Myers with the New York Times.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. If I could just at the beginning, though, ask that we reconsider it being on background since there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly sensitive about the announcement or anything. And then my question is: The coming visit of the President Thein Sein here to Washington, presumably at one point he would have been on a visa ban list. But is doing this now at all related to the fact that we needed to or wanted to remove that stigma, if you will, before his visit? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. First let me say I’m not aware of any announcement of a visit and would defer to my colleagues at the White House with sort of head of state level visits here to the States. But let me say two things.
One, we are very much encouraging engagement. President Obama went to Burma, a very historic visit, as you know, last November and delivered a very important message about support for reform but also the notion that this process is very nascent, very much in the beginning stages, and there are many difficulties on the long road ahead.
Previously, President Thein Sein visited New York last year in the context of the United Nations General Assembly, and we had some engagement at the Secretary of State level with him where we exchanged views and addressed many of our concerns.
Last year, in order to demonstrate our recognition that reform was serious and significant, the U.S. Government actually removed President Thein Sein from our SDN list in recognition of his leadership role on reform. We also removed a couple of other figures, including Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house.
This is an important signal that for those who contribute to the democratization process, increased respect for human rights, and efforts to get Burma on the right track, they can benefit from easing of sanctions and a more normal relationship with the United States.
By the same measure, I hasten to mention that we have, over the past year, added several individuals and entities to the specially designated nationals list precisely for the reasons that we’ve talked about – either thwarting the reform process, perpetuating human rights abuses, or continuing the trade with – military trade with North Korea. So I think it’s very important that we made that move for President Thein Sein and Shwe Mann last year to recognize that they are leading a historic and substantial departure from authoritarian rule inside Burma.
MODERATOR: We have time for one more question.
OPERATOR: Very good. That question will by Rosiland Jordan with Al-Jazeera News, English Television.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for taking the call. Very quickly, we’ve been running a report from my colleague Wayne Hay who has been in a part of Burma where there is a sizable Rohingya population, and the local officials and police are seen colluding on camera to prevent these people from receiving necessary medical care. Is that part of the situation that would fall under continued denial of visas to those officials, whether or not they might have been seen as – perhaps being more reform-minded in the past?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I think with regards to the situation in Rakhine state and the communal, sectarian violence that has sadly taken place elsewhere in the country, this is quite significant, and it’s part of what we indicate when we talk about the difficult aspects of transition in the country. Many of these problems are longstanding. The new civilian-led government has inherited problems that were exacerbated by the military regime. The military regime, for half a century, would respond to conflict with more violence and repression. This central government is trying to do things differently.
But I think your question gets at, indeed, some of the problems that we are observing and hearing from very credible sources in civil society, from nongovernmental organizations. There are credible reports that, at the local level, local authorities, local security officials, local religious leaders have been contributing to the problems not the solutions, and we are very troubled by that.
And it’s a message that we are delivering firmly to the government at the central level and the local level. And indeed, where we can gather credible information, and we collaborate closely with human rights community – where we can gather credible information, we will certainly deny these individuals the benefits of our easing and of travel to the United States.
The designation process for the SDN List is one that requires ample evidence and documentation, and we look to our partners in civil society to help build the case where merited. That tool will remain very flexible going forward, and that’s part of the reason the IEEPA authorities are extended today, so we have that tool.
But indeed there are still problematic areas inside Burma. At the top of our discussion today I mentioned many of those concerns. And where there are human rights abuses perpetuated, we are going to remain very much eyes wide open, very cautious as we move ahead, very calibrated, very principled. We are normalizing the relationship with Burma, but we have not fully normalized. And so we want to address these challenges in every way possible.
QUESTION: And a quick follow-up. How long do you estimate that in a country that had been under military rule or under a dictatorship for so many decades that the process actually does, to use an economic phrase, trickle down to the local level, where minority rights are respected, where human rights are respected?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, that’s a very complex question, and I think as President Obama said in November, clearly the country’s at the beginning of a long process. There are a number of milestones on the horizon that will be very important. Next year, Burma will chair for the first time the Association for Southeast Asian Nations. The country will hold the first national census in three decades. The following year in 2015, Burma will hold its next national election, a very important milestone – truly the perhaps the first opportunity in a generation for a free and fair mechanism of the expression of public will.
So it’s going to take some time. At the same time, we want to recognize how far they’ve come. Just three years ago, it was still illegal in Burma for more than three people to gather without a permit. That was a pretext for arrest and imprisonment, and indeed that was applied in hundreds of cases. There was no free press. There was no expression of free speech. And the gulag of prisons and labor camps were populated with thousands for the expression of political views. That has changed substantially, with political prisoner releases, with new freedoms of expression and assembly.
Just last December, with U.S. assistance, among other donors, there was an MTV EXIT concert in Rangoon to address trafficking in persons. Nearly 100,000 Burmese gathered in People’s Park for the first sort of rock and roll concert in memory, perhaps ever, in a park where people were prohibited from gathering just two and a half years ago. The peace talks and the peace process has yielded ceasefire arrangements with 10 of 11 armed groups, and there are talks underway to address the 11th.
These, we have to recognize, are the very actions that we have been asking Burmese authorities to take for the past two decades-plus, so they’re important moves. But they are very much at the beginning. This is a country replete with enormous challenges, and it is a very bumpy process. The difference now is we are in a position, along with others in the international community, to help the stakeholders, to help the government, to help the parliament, where Aung San Suu Kyi, just two and a half years ago a prison in her own home, is now a leading member in parliament, where she leads the opposition, but also a committee on rule of law. And her fellow party members of a party that was once banned are participating in the process, much like former political prisoners and exiles who have returned to Burma.
So there are many ingredients for us to work with and to help. But in the questions that you have all posed today, we are certainly of the position that, indeed, there are many significant challenges ahead as we try and help them address these problems.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you all for joining us today. Let me remind you that this call is on background, attributable to a senior State Department official. And if you have any follow-up questions, feel free to contact us in the State Department Press Office. Thanks, and have a great day.