Myanmar's Road Ahead

Growth, Peace, and U.S. Sanctions

Aung San Suu Kyi at the Union Parliament in Myanmar, March 2016. Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

When Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) took power in Myanmar in March of this year, they inherited three especially daunting challenges: an economy devastated by decades of mismanagement and sanctions; virulent anti-Muslim sentiment among much of the country’s Buddhist majority; and a moribund peace process struggling to end nearly seven decades of ethnic insurgency in many of Myanmar’s border states.

The situation in Rakhine State—where conflict has flared between the Buddhist Rakhine, the majority ethnic group, and the Muslim Rohingya, the minority—has been of particular concern. There, on October 9, a series of attacks by unidentified assailants on border police outposts has provoked what activists allege to be retaliatory killings by the authorities. Such incidents threaten to inflame tensions and plunge the region back into communal violence on a scale not seen since the 2012 riots that killed nearly 200 and displaced 140,000, almost all of them Rohingya.

Although Aung San Suu Kyi appeared uninterested in these problems before she took power, she has since turned her attention to bringing peace to a country that has been riven by communal violence for much of its history.

Until recently, however, U.S. policy toward Myanmar was not well equipped to assist her government in addressing these challenges. Relations between the countries had been burdened by a sanctions regime created 20 years earlier to punish Myanmar’s military junta for its failure to turn over power to a democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Those sanctions have since become an obstacle to the economic development that the country now needs in order to consolidate democratic gains. The Obama administration’s decision, carried out in an October 7 executive order, to remove most sanctions on Myanmar thus presents an opportunity to refocus U.S. attention and help Aung San Suu Kyi meet her most serious challenges. On some of these, sanctions might still have a role to play. 


The United States removed most general trade

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