Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Myanmar and the US Move Forward in Normalizing Relations

Last week Myanmar president Thein Sein made a state visit to Washington DC.  The major developments were the signing of a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) as well as more movement on the lifting of almost all sanctions on the regime.  This has been covered in depth elsewhere, but I wanted to add some clarifications to the general discussion.

First, a TIFA agreement is not a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).  It does not provide for open markets in goods, services and investment. Rather, a TIFA agreement merely provides a framework for the governments to discuss issues regarding goods, services, investment and other cross-border economic relationships. In other words, a TIFA agreement is merely an agreement to formalize discussions.  With Myanmar, this is a significant development in and of itself (that and the fact that the agreement refers to the country as “Myanmar”, although the USTR website refers to “Burma”), but let’s keep this in perspective.  With this TIFA, the US now has agreements with 7 of the 10 ASEAN countries and ASEAN itself, plus the US-Singapore FTA. Only Laos does not have some sort of trade-related bilateral agreement with the US, but that will just be a matter of time.

The more important development regards the US Burma sanctions.  Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who had been a major supporter of Burma sanctions, indicated that he would not support renewal of the US legislation authorizing the sanctions.  This was to be expected, particularly as the Myanmar regime has improved its treatment of Christian minorities in the country, an important issue for Senator McConnell.  Increasingly, then, supporters of continued Burma sanctions are dwindling to a hard core of human rights advocates who are concerned about the treatment of the Rohingya and want faster progress on democracy issues.   It looks like almost all of the US Burma sanctions, with the exception of the drug-related sanctions may eventually go, as even military-related sanctions may be relaxed.