Myanmar is coming in from the cold as the US announced it will lift sanctions against it. But amid the proclamations of prosperity, could freeing up the murky jade trade do as much harm to the country as good?
A new era is dawning for Myanmar as President Barack Obama announced plans to lift US sanctions against the once-pariah state following a meeting in the White House last Wednesday with State Counsellor and de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
“In part because of the progress that we've seen over the last several months, I indicated, after consulting with Daw Suu, that the United States is now prepared to lift sanctions that we have imposed on Burma for quite some time,” President Obama said in a joint statement with Ms. Suu Kyi.
The US is also to extend the benefits of its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), or preferential tariffs, which, America’s trade representative said, “will allow Myanmar to export some 5,000 products to the United States duty-free”.
At the same time, while military trade is still prohibited and visa bans against travelling to the United States remain in place, almost all other sanctions previously established will be repealed through the termination of the US National Emergency Act.
Ms. Suu Kyi appeared optimistic at the prospects trade would not only further the country’s economic development, but also its attempts at achieving national unity among its 135 recognised ethnic groups.
Myanmar continues to deny the Rohingya citizenship and they are still not recognised as one of its minorities, according to the Burmese Nationality Act of 1982.
Conflict of interests
Prima facie, the lifting of sanctions may seem a significant step forward for both Myanmar's economy and for the prospects of national peace in a country long riven by ethnic conflict. But in a country whose military still retains 25% of the seats in Parliament even after the end of the dictatorship, and one which is still undergoing a fragile transformation, there are dangers.
By lifting the sanctions, the US could lose some leverage over Myanmar’s military, and it could end up benefitting corrupt military officials. There is also the danger that far from dampening ethnic strife in the country, lifting the sanctions could add fuel to the fire.
Myanmar holds the record for the world’s longest ongoing civil war. It is now in its 68th year. More than a dozen ethnic groups have been fighting to preserve their autonomy against the domineering pressures of the ethnic Bamar majority.”
At the core of the ethnic conflicts in Myanmar is the protection of the economic rights of minorities, who control approximately 40% of the country’s natural resources, according to Baroness Cox, founder of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust. She says in the past deals the (military) government struck have excluded locals, who are left to cope with the environmental destruction wrought on their land and livelihoods.
A particularly illustrative example of this is the jade trade, worth $31 billion in 2014 alone and equating to half the county’s entire GDP. Jade is mostly found in Kachin State, but the local Kachin community sees almost no benefits, with Global Witness exposing how “Myanmar’s vast jade trade is being secretly controlled by networks of military elites, drug lords and crony companies associated with the darkest days of junta rule”. As one local Kachin interviewed by Global Witness put it, “the tree is in our garden, but we are not allowed to eat the fruit”. Such injustices help fuel the conflict in Kachin State, where fighting between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has killed thousands and displaced over 100,000 people.
Last year, Global Witness uncovered how the families of politically influential military personnel, including that of former dictator Than Shwe, still control many of the biggest licensed jade mining companies. They work alongside army conglomerates such as Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), which have come to control a significant portion of the economy including teak, the extraction of natural gas and oil, mobiles, banking, the Myanmar Brewery, transportation and large-scale construction.
The lifting of sanctions will undoubtedly facilitate the trade in jade among Myanmar’s other resources. This will lead to an increase in demand, which could deepen conflicts between the military and armed ethnic groups, such as the KIA, for whom jade is also their main source of income.
“Jade is enriching the people with most to lose from reform, fuelling a terrible conflict and depriving the broader population of transformative amounts of cash,” Juman Kubba of Global Witness told The World Weekly
As such, while President Obama and Ms. Suu Kyi, two Nobel Peace laureates, celebrate a new era for Myanmar, there is still a long way to go and if the country is to achieve lasting peace and prosperity, it will likely take more than the lifting of sanctions.