U.S. Foreign Policy Sanctions:  Burma

The United States began to impose sanctions on Burma in the late 1980s as a result of the Burmese regime’s political repression, and in 2012, began to lift sanctions gradually in response to reforms by President Thein Sein. Secretary Clinton emphasized that engagement by the U.S. private and public sectors was a key element of support for reform in Burma. At the same time individual Burmese who are opposed to reform continue to be subject to sanctions.

U.S. sanctions on Burma responded over time to politically repressive acts by Burma's military government. Sanctions were first imposed in 1988 in response to the regime's repression of protests and subsequent congressional pressure. The Reagan Administration suspended all foreign assistance and arms sales to Burma. When the military government suspended parliament after Aung San Suu Kyi's party won the 1990 elections, Congress passed legislation authorizing the president to impose "such economic sanctions as the President determines to be appropriate." Burma was suspended from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and designated as a drug producing and trafficking country, requiring U.S. opposition to loans to Burma by international financial institutions. In 1995, the Free Burma Act – a broad range of sanctions on Burma, including an investment ban and a prohibition of all U.S. assistance to the country – was introduced in Congress. Although the bill did not become law, it is given some credit for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest that year.

In 1997, Congress tightened sanctions, authorizing the president to ban new investments in Burma, which President Clinton did by executive order. Clinton also used the authority of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act for additional executive orders to, among other things, limit travel to the United States by Burmese officials. Following a crackdown, which included the detention of Aug San Suu Kyi in 2003, Congress passed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which authorized the prohibition of imports of "any article that is produced, manufactured or grown in [Burma]." President Bush exercised this authority in a series of executive orders, which President Obama has renewed, thus extending the sanctions on Burma.

In the mid-1990s, advocates of Burmese democracy in the United States campaigned to emulate the multitude of state and local sanctions on U.S. companies doing business in South Africa. When Massachusetts passed a ban on procurement from companies doing business in Burma, the NFTC challenged its constitutionality. In a landmark decision in 1990, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Crosby v. NFTC that such measures are unconstitutional because they are preempted by federal sanctions. The precedent set by this ruling was useful in striking down an Illinois sanctions law on Sudan and in helping to dissuade state legislatures from enacting similar sanctions.

After coming to power in 2011, President Thein Sein released political prisoners, ended the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, began a series of reforms and assured Secretary of State Clinton that reforms would continue. On April 1, 2012, Burma held free by-elections for parliament to which Aung San Suu Kyi was elected. In response, in May 2012, the United States suspended sanctions barring U.S. investment in Burma, normalized diplomatic relations by appointing an ambassador and resumed USAID programs. In September, the United States removed Burma’s top leadership from a list of persons banned from doing business in the United States. At the same time, given uncertainties about Burma’s future leadership, and in order to maintain leverage to encourage continued reform, Congress in August 2012 renewed the 2003 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which allows the president to continue the prohibition on U.S. imports of Burmese products.