The removal of Western sanctions on Myanmar will be more motivated by a desire to halt China’s growing influence in the country than its gradual democratisation, according to senior government officials.
The US last week announced will ease sanctions on the Southeast Asian country in recognition of its burgeoning democratic transition. It followed similar announcements from the EU, Japan and Australia in the wake of successful by-elections in the country last week.
Click here and here for exclusive IFLR video footage of Aung San Suu Kyi inspecting polling stations in her constituency on the morning of Myanmar's by-elections.
The news prompted Myanmar presidential economic adviser Set Aung to speak with IFLR of his frustration that a targeted easing of sanctions would leave the most damaging embargoes in place.
However, one senior official at the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) told IFLR on Friday that the US would lift all its trade embargoes on the country in time. But the move would have very little to do with democratic change in Myanmar.
“This has everything to do with geopolitics and how the US national interests have changed,” he said. “The US is keen to develop close relationships with Myanmar primarily because it doesn’t want China to have undue influence here.”
With Western sanctions limiting involvement in the region, Myanmar has increasingly looked to China for investment purposes. “The US regards itself as a world power,” said the MIC official. “But without a presence in East Asia it can’t be a world power anymore.”
For that reason, it is doing what it can to insure increased involvement in the region.
“The detailed nature of US sanctions, and the huge number of clauses included within them, make it impossible to remove them quickly,” he said. “But I know the US is encouraging the EU, Australia and Japan to more closely assist us in the meantime.”
Meanwhile, U Than Lwin deputy governor at the domestic private bank, KBZ Bank, said Myanmar needed more encouragement from the West instead of criticism.
“We are discussing peace agreements with the ethnic groups in Myanmar,” he said. “We are now more transparent, we held by-elections in which the government accepted defeat. What more do we need to do?”
He said the conditions imposed by the US sanctions pushed Myanmar further into the arms of China.
“In the past we had no choice but to depend on China,” he said. “But China has been very aggressive in its involvement here. It has been trying to influence policy, and that is not the way we do things.”
“We don’t want to be influenced by China; we don’t want to be influenced by any country,” he said. “We want a friendly relationship with the West.”
“What concerns me are that there are too many conditions under which we must improve for sanctions to be lifted,” he said. “Myanmar is far ahead of China in terms of human rights, yet there are no trade sanctions on China.
He added that even with the sanctions in place the country was moving forward bilaterally, with the assistance of friendly countries such as Japan and Norway.
The US government last week nominated Derek Mitchell, the state department’s special envoy to Myanmar, as the first US ambassador to Myanmar since 1990.