On September 18, Burmese pro-democracy leader, Noble laureate and parliamentarian, Aung San Suu Kyi, kicked off her historic 17-day tour of the United States in Washington, D.C. While in town she met with administration officials, including President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She also attended a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, where she received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Suu Kyi, and the other Burmese pro-democracy leaders being honored for their work, celebrated the great advancements that have been made in Burma over the past year or so. However, there was also a great deal of conversation about the continued challenges that the burgeoning democracy in Burma faces.
Leaders highlighted concerns over the continued conflict in ethnic minority regions, particularly Kachin State, as well as the amount of authority the military retains over the government. While all welcomed the news that more than 500 prisoners were released from custody on September 17, approximately 87 of whom were political prisoners, Suu Kyi and others expressed concern for the more than 200 political prisoners who remain.
There has also been much discussion over the United States’ decision to ease economic sanctions on Burma. When questioned about new investment flowing in to the country at an Amnesty International event, Suu Kyi, stressed the importance of transparency of these investments to ensure that they are “democracy friendly, human rights friendly.”
One of the best tools the U.S. has to ensure that business investments in Burma are not used to reward or enable those committing abuses is the Specially Designated National’s (SDN) list. The SDN list includes the names of those individuals and companies considered to be bad actors in Burma, contributing to human rights abuses, promoting corruption or undermining democracy. U.S. companies are prohibited by law from doing business with those on the list.
The Treasury Department announced on September 19 that it had removed Burmese President Thein Sein and the speaker of Burma’s lower house of parliament, Thura Shwe Mann, from the SDN list. This move came ahead of Thein Sein’s scheduled visit to New York for the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly, which convenes on September 24.
Despite the removal of Thein Sein and Thura Mann, the SDN list has not received a comprehensive update since 2007. The U.S. has shown that it is willing to take the time remove actors from the list, and now it must take the time to add problematic actors. The sooner this happens, the better.
U.S. companies are already investing in Burma following the rollback of the investment ban. Unless the SDN list is updated to provide clarity on the bad actors, U.S. companies risk doing business with those guilty of perpetrating human rights violations or working to undermine the recent steps toward democracy.
We have asked our activists to take action to demand that the SDN list receive a long overdue update. So far more than 10,000 people have signed the petition to President Obama, but we still need more voices to stand with Aung San Suu Kyi.