International experts on Burma's human rights record are urging the Obama administration not to ease economic sanctions on the country's military rulers as part of a policy review. They say the best way to promote democracy and human rights in Burma is to strengthen the sanctions and encourage other countries to increase pressure on the Burmese leadership.
The panel of experts told a congressional hearing that Washington should maintain pressure on Rangoon in response to what they say are serious continued rights violations by its military rulers.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton ordered a review of U.S. policy on Burma earlier this year. She said the current strategy of imposing sanctions on Burma's leaders while reaching out to them has not worked.
Sean Turnell, an economic professor at Australia's Macquarie University, told the U.S. lawmakers that existing travel and financial restrictions on Burmese officials are effective because they target military leaders and have little impact on Burma's impoverish population.
Turnell says the Obama administration would lose its leverage over Burma's government by scaling back the sanctions. "Those sanctions sitting there are a resource we can draw down once genuine political and economic reform emerge in Burma. They are incredibly useful and they are going to be much more useful when perhaps some new government arrives in Burma with a genuine reform mandate.," he said.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma, a group of pro-democracy activists, says the U.S. should impose even tougher sanctions on the Burmese military leaders.
The group's director, Jennifer Quigley, told the hearing that tighter U.S. and European penalties on Burma's rulers would cut off their access to much needed foreign currency. "The regime would like to have its money in dollars, and we have effectively managed to take away their currency of choice, you could say. The other strong currency is the euro - if we approach our other allies to strengthen their own sanctions that would effectively cut off the two strongest currencies in the world from the regime," she said.
The head of the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee on Asia, Democratic Senator Jim Webb supports engaging with the Burmese military by lifting sanctions.
Webb said the U.S. should deal with Burma in the same way it did with China and Vietnam, despite human rights concerns in the two communist states.
But Turnell says Burma's government is very different to those of Vietnam or China. "Those governments usually recognize the interests of business. Burma's is not like that. The metaphor I like to employ is that Burma's regime is more like a looter than a parasite on the body of the economy," he said.
The panel of human rights experts urged the Obama administration to appoint a special envoy to Burma to show it is willing to engage with the country's leaders at a higher level.