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September 21, 2016

A Missed Opportunity on Burma, Human Trafficking

By Alexander Strain

Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi met with President Obama last week. It was an ideal occasion to discuss Burma’s ongoing problem with human trafficking. Unfortunately, Obama didn’t bring it up publicly, and according to Senator Bob Corker, who met with Suu Kyi on Wednesday her response was at best dismissive.

In June 2016 Burma was downgraded to Tier 3 on the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, indicating that the country doesn’t comply with minimum standards for combating trafficking and shows little effort in addressing the shortcomings. Despite this censure, President Obama committed to lifting trade sanctions against Burma that were established almost 20 years ago, in part to reprimand the nation’s reprehensible human rights record.

Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize for her brave opposition to oppressive military powers preventing Burma’s democratic development. After being released from house arrest, Suu Kyi continued to campaign for democratic change as leader of the National League for Democracy, eventually becoming Burma’s first non-military president since the 1960s in 2015. Many view her as an arbiter for humanitarian leadership. Her lack of response to the human trafficking problem in her nation leaves many human rights activists and political leaders deeply disappointed.

President Obama first announced his aims to remove sanctions banning American companies from engaging in business with Burma in May. The United States had long declared Burma in a state of emergency, deeming the country an extraordinary threat due to the egregious restrictions on religious freedom and the oppressive military regime. The sanctions restricted the power of the military that constitutionally holds 25 percent of the nation’s parliamentary seats, can dissolve parliament in times of national emergency, and control security, defense, and border ministries.

Lifting sanctions could allow Burma duty-free exports, but many of these products are produced via exploitative labor practices and slavery as evidenced by the nation’s Tier 3 designation and the 14 goods produced in Burma on the Department of Labor’s list of goods produced with child or forced labor.

Among Burma’s human rights concerns is the persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in western Burma. The Economist describes them as “the most persecuted people on earth.” Faced with extreme marginalization and violence, many Rohingya attempt to escape Burma. Photos show Rohingya fleeing on crowded boats, adrift at sea—a textbook case of people vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers.

Senator Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, claimed Suu Kyi failed to mention the Rohingya by name and appeared arrogant in response to questions addressing human trafficking operations plaguing her country. For a nation downgraded to the lowest categorization in combating slavery, Suu Kyi’s attitude left Senator Corker “somewhat appalled.”

President Obama’s removal of sanctions in Burma echoes similar diplomatic agreements with Iran (also a Tier 3 nation) concerning their nuclear program, and in Cuba (a Tier 2 Watch List nation) in opening diplomatic ties. Obama’s belief is lenience will encourage openness in former adversaries, allowing imperfect democracies, like Burma, greater opportunity to improve and flourish.

But Obama’s meeting with Suu Kyi last week failed to at least establish human trafficking as a priority and gave away leverage by lifting the trade sanctions. Until the United States establishes discussions of human trafficking in all bilateral and multilateral executive meetings as a key diplomatic concern, nations like Burma will remain largely unaccountable. Anti-trafficking tools such as the TIP report, the efforts of government, business, and NGO organizations, and the attention of the human rights community can only be fully realized in coordination with the political weight of our highest offices.