US Ambassador flags possible sanctions ease, holds steady on Rakhine row

By SEAN GLEESON | FRONTIER

YANGON — US Ambassador Scot Marciel has said his country remains committed to political and economic reform in Myanmar during his first official public address on Tuesday morning, while treading gingerly around a controversy arising from a recent US Embassy statement on Rakhine State.

Speaking to a small gathering of academics, civil society leaders and journalists at the American Center in downtown Yangon, the career diplomat reiterated many of the commitments made by his predecessor Derek Mitchell, regarded as one of the principal architects of the Obama Administration’s Myanmar engagement strategy.

Ahead of a major review of US economic sanctions due later this month, Ambassador Marciel said that American officials remained committed to raising human rights matters both publicly and privately with their counterparts in the Myanmar government.

“We want to see a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Myanmar,” Marciel told the audience. “Our role is to be on the side of the people… We understand the democratic transition is not complete, but the elections and the new government is a major step forward.”

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In a broad-ranging speech on relations between the two countries, Marciel said that the US would strive to promote trade and investment in the country and recognised the need for an all-inclusive peace agreement to foster political and economic development in Myanmar.  

The ambassador’s policy speech touched on a recent controversy over communal tensions in Rakhine State, where approximately 140,000 Muslims have resided in segregated camps since a major outbreak of violence in 2012.

“What we’ve learned through our experience is that our country is stronger when we respect everyone, and we’re weaker when the voices of discrimination and division dominate,” he said, adding that it was important for the new government to encourage broad development in Rakhine State while building trust between community leaders.

Late last month, the US Embassy was closed after nationalist protestors gathered outside the University Avenue compound, protesting the use of the word Rohingya to describe the victims of a recent ferry disaster which claimed at least 21 lives.

The leaders of the demonstration have repeatedly claimed that the state’s estimated 1.1 million Rohingya population has devised a false ethnic self-identification to disguise their history as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh.

Ambassador Marciel would not be drawn on reports that Foreign Minister and National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had last week asked the US Embassy to refrain from using the word Rohingya, while repeating that the US recognised the right of communities to self-identify.

“Communities everywhere get to choose what they want to be called,” he said, reiterating an earlier statement on the matter.

The ambassador did not use the word Rohingya during Tuesday’s speech, though the term has been used on previous occasions by senior US officials, including US President Barack Obama during a 2014 visit to Myanmar. 

Sanctions review

Ambassador Marciel said he was unable to comment on the eventual outcome of an imminent review into US economic sanctions against Myanmar, while admitting that the sanctions regime had occasionally led to “unintended effects on the broader economy”.

The US economy began lifting sanctions against Myanmar after the quasi-civilian government of U Thein Sein took office in 2011, while maintaining a number of sanctions on local business leaders, former junta figures and military-owned enterprises.

Conceding that some US firms had avoided seeking opportunities in Myanmar as a result of his government’s sanctions policy, Ambassador Marciel said that the US would continue to use sanctions to promote further human rights improvements.

“While I cannot yet say what the outcome of that review will be, I want to stress that our role will be to secure further reform and broad-based, sustainable and equitable economic development,” he said.

Fortify Rights this week urged the US government to maintain its existing sanctions authority for another year. In a report released on Monday, the regional rights group said continued armed conflict in Myanmar’s north and the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State demonstrated the ongoing need for targeted sanctions.

“The US could best support human rights in Myanmar by incentivising progress and positive political reforms while maintaining targeted sanctions against those who commit or incite human rights violations,” the report said.

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