Myanmar–United States relations

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Myanmar–United States relations
Map indicating locations of Myanmar and United States


United States
Diplomatic mission
Burmese Embassy, Washington, D.C.United States Embassy, Yangon

The political relationship between the United States and Myanmar worsened after the 1988 military coup and violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations. Subsequent repression, including the crackdown on peaceful protestors in September 2007, further strained the relationship.[citation needed] However, following signs of liberalization, the US government began the process of improving its links with Myanmar in 2011.[1] With improving ties in 2012, the White House planned Ambassador nomination, the first since 1990.[2] On June 29, 2012, the U.S. Senate confirmed Derek Mitchell as the United States Ambassador to Myanmar.[3]

In a Gallup public opinion poll conducted in 2012, 30% of Burmese people approved of U.S. leadership, with 67% uncertain and 3% disapproving.[4]


19th century relations[edit]

The first contact between the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma and the United States were the letters sent from King Mindon in 1856–57 to Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. King Mindon hoped for a bilateral treaty that would help provide some protection against the British Empire.[5]

1990s relations[edit]

Massachusetts attempted to sanction Myanmar directly in 1996 but those efforts proved unconstitutional.[6] Later, the United States federal government imposed broad sanctions against Myanmar under several different legislative and policy vehicles. The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act (BFDA), passed by Congress and signed by the President in 2003, included a ban on all imports from Myanmar, a ban on the export of financial services to Myanmar, a freeze on the assets of certain Burmese financial institutions, and extended visa restrictions on Burmese officials. Congress has renewed the BFDA annually, most recently in July 2010.[7]

2000s relations[edit]

Since September 27, 2007, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated 25 senior Burmese government officials as subject to an asset block under Executive Order 13310. On October 19, 2007, President George W. Bush announced a new Executive Order (E.O. 13448) which expands the authority to block assets to individuals who are responsible for human rights abuses and public corruption, as well as those who provide material and financial support to the regime.

In addition, since May 1997, the U.S. Government has prohibited new investment by U.S. persons or entities. A number of U.S. companies exited the Myanmar market even prior to the imposition of sanctions due to a worsening business climate and mounting criticism from human rights groups, consumers, and shareholders. The United States has also imposed countermeasures on Myanmar due to its inadequate measures to eliminate money laundering.

Due to its particularly severe violations of religious freedom, the United States has designated Myanmar a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act. Myanmar is also designated a Tier 3 Country in the Trafficking in Persons Report for its use of forced labour, and is subject to additional sanctions as a result. The political relationship between the United States and Myanmar worsened after the 1988 military coup and violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations. Subsequent repression, including the brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors in September 2007, further strained the relationship.

The United States downgraded its level of representation in Myanmar from Ambassador to Chargé d'Affaires after the government's crackdown on the democratic opposition in 1988 and its failure to honour the results of the 1990 parliamentary election.[8]

Covert military activities in Myanmar[edit]

On September 10, 2007, the Burmese Government accused the CIA of assassinating a rebel Karen commander from the KNU who wanted to negotiate with the military government.[9] For background on the conflict, see

It is more fully explored on: Namebase (cross-references books on CIA activities in Myanmar).[10] [11][12]

According to media reports citing documents published by Germany's Der Spiegel in 2010, the Embassy of the United States in Yangon is the site of an electronic surveillance facility used to monitor telephones and communications networks, run jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency group known as Special Collection Service.[13]

U.S. support for Myanmar civil society[edit]

According to WikiLeaks cables, the United States funded some of the civil society groups in Myanmar that forced the government to suspend a controversial Chinese Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy river.[14]

Recent history[edit]

Thein Sein meets U.S. President Barack Obama in Yangon, November 19, 2012

US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visited Myanmar in November–December 2011. In this visit, the first by a Secretary of State since 1955, Clinton met with the President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, in the capital Naypyidaw, and later met with democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon. The US announced a relaxation of curbs on aid and raised the possibility of an exchange of ambassadors.[1]

On January 13, 2012, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the US will exchange ambassadors with Myanmar, after a landmark Burmese political prisoner amnesty.[15]

On Thursday, May 17, 2012, the White House Press Office announced that President Barack Obama had nominated Derek Mitchell to the U.S. Senate for confirmation to serve as Ambassador to Myanmar.[16][17] After being confirmed by the U.S. Senate in late June, Derek Mitchell, the first U.S ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years formally assumed his job on July 11, 2012 by presenting his credentials to President Thein Sein at the presidential mansion in the capital Naypyitaw.[18][19]

In July 2012 the United States formally eased sanctions on Myanmar.[20] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced plans in the spring of 2012 for a “targeted easing” of sanctions to allow American dollars to enter the country, but companies could not move ahead until the sanctions were formally suspended.[20] President Obama ordered in July 2012 the U.S. Treasury Department to issue two licenses, one giving special permission for investment in Myanmar and the other allowing financial services.[18] Although plans to lift investment restrictions were announced in May 2012, the change awaited what administration officials said were detailed reporting requirements on U.S. companies doing business in Myanmar, along with creating mechanisms to prevent U.S. economic ties to the powerful Burmese military and individuals and companies involved in human rights abuses.[21] President Obama also issued an executive order expanding existing sanctions against individuals who violate human rights to include those who threaten Myanmar's political restructuring process.[21]

The United States has not allowed investment in military entities owned by Myanmar's armed forces or its Ministry of Defense.[22] It also bolstered its ability to place sanctions on “those who undermine the reform process, engage in human rights abuses, contribute to ethnic conflict or participate in military trade with North Korea.” The United States will continue to block businesses or individuals from making transactions with any “specially designated nationals” or businesses that they control — allowing Washington, for example, to stop money from flowing to groups disrupting the reform process. President Obama also created a new power for the government to impose “blocking sanctions” on any individual threatening peace in Myanmar. Businesses with more than $500,000 in investment in the country will need to file an annual report with the State Department, with details on workers’ rights, land acquisitions and any payments of more than $10,000 to government entities, including Myanmar's state-owned enterprises.[20] American companies and people will be allowed to invest in the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, but any investors will need to notify the State Department within 60 days. This was criticized by Human Rights Groups.[18][20][23] “The new United States government policy allowing business activity in Myanmar’s controversial oil sector with reporting requirements will not adequately prevent new investments from fueling abuses and undermining reform,” New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said in a statement.[18]“By allowing deals with Myanmar’s state-owned oil company, the U.S. looks like it caved to industry pressure and undercut Aung San Suu Kyi and others in Myanmar who are promoting government accountability,” HRW's Business and Human Rights Director Arvind Ganesan said.[18]

In September 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor of Myanmar visited United States and which has set a mile stone for the relationship between United States and Myanmar issuing a joint statement in which President Obama is lifting the Executive Order-based framework of the Myanmar sanctions while restoring Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade benefits to Myanmar.[24]

In October 2017, in response to the 600,000 refugees displaced from their homes during the ongoing Rohingya crisis, the United States withdrew military aid to some Myanmar units responsible for the displacement. The State Department issued a statement, saying current and former senior leadership of the Burmese military would no longer be considered for the JADE Act travel waivers, that no units and officers involved in the Rohingya persecution would be eligible for U.S assistance programs, and that senior security forces of Myanmar were no longer invited to attend U.S-sponsored events.[25] The State Department reiterated support for Myanmar's democratization process as well as relief for the persecuted Rohingya.[25]

The United States did not immediately re-impose sanctions on Myanmar as a response to this, which was met with criticism by Congressional lawmakers and human rights activists.[26] In the October 2017 Congressional hearing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Patrick Murphy explained that besides running the risk of inefficacy, imposing sanctions might weaken the United States’ influence on Myanmar.[27]

In December 2017, the United States imposed a blacklist on Maung Maung Soe, chief of the Myanmar army's Western Command, which was responsible for the violence towards the Rohingya. Following an Executive Order by President Trump, that enables the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control to impose sanctions on foreign officials for human rights abuses, the Department froze Soe's United States assets and bars Americans from engaging in business transactions with him.[28]

In August 2018, the United States Treasury Department enacted these economic sanctions on four Myanmar military and police commanders in a statement, referring to the violence against the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing.” Those targeted by this sanction are: Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe, Khin Hlaing, Thura San Lwin, as well as the Burmese Army's 33rd Light Infantry Division, and the 99th Light Infantry Division.[29]

In September 2018, the State Department released a report titled Documentation of Atrocities in Northern Rakhine State, detailing the violence suffered by the Rohingya refugees, refraining from use of the term “ethnic cleansing.”[30] In April 2018, the State Department issued a statement, announcing an additional $50 million and a total of $255 million since FY 2017 to be spent on humanitarian aid for Rohingya refugees. The statement also noted this contribution was impacted by the support of Congressional lawmakers.[31]

By the mid 2019, the United States has imposed sanctions on senior officials of the Myanmar military that prevents those officials from crossing US border. The military strongly condemned those measures. At the end of 2019, when the West African Nation Gambia filed a case at the International Court of Justice against Myanmar, accusing it of genocide, the US immediately tightened up sanctions against Myanmar Army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, where the any assets of the Hlaing in the US will be frozen. On January 31, 2020, the Trump Administration restricted immigration from 6 countries and Myanmar was among them.[32]

In February 2021, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown in a military coup led by Min Aung Hlaing. The United States condemned the coup and threatened to impose sanctions.[33] They later followed through on the threat on February 10, when President Joe Biden announced sanctions on Myanmar military leaders and their business associates.[34]

Diplomatic missions[edit]

The US embassy in Myanmar is located in Yangon, whilst the Burmese diplomatic representation to the United States is based in Washington, D.C.

Major Officials of the US Embassy in Yangon[edit]


  1. ^ a b Myers, Steven Lee (December 1, 2011). "Clinton Says U.S. Will Relax Some Curbs on Aid to Myanmar". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Barta, Patrick (April 5, 2012). "U.S. Forges Deeper Myanmar Ties". The Wall Street Journal.
  3. ^ "Myanmar ambassador confirmed". Politico. Associated Press. July 2, 2012. Retrieved November 10, 2012.
  4. ^ Snapshot: U.S. Leadership Unknown in Myanmar Gallup
  5. ^ "First contact with Burmese and US governments". Archived from the original on September 11, 2018. Retrieved September 11, 2018.
  6. ^ Banks, Angela M. (1999). "Foreign Affairs Power -- The Massachusetts Burma Law is Found to Encroach on the Federal Government's Exclusive Constitutional Authority to Regulate Foreign Affairs. -- National Foreign Trade Council v. Baker, 26 F. Supp. 2d 287 (D. Mass. 1998)". College of William & Mary Law School. Retrieved February 11, 2021.
  7. ^ "Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act passed both Houses of Congress with more support than in any other year!". July 23, 2010.
  8. ^ "Timeline: US-Burma/Myanmar Relations". Contemporary Southeast Asia. 32 (3): 434–436. 2010.
  9. ^ "Burma Accuses CIA of Involvement in KNU Assassination". Archived from the original on April 30, 2011. Retrieved November 26, 2012.
  10. ^ "CIA in Burma". NameBase. Retrieved January 20, 2012.[dead link]
  11. ^ CIA World Factbook: Burma
  12. ^ "Burma, Opium & the CIA - UK Indymedia".
  13. ^ Tim McLaughlin and Nyan Lynn Aung (October 31, 2013). "US embassy in Yangon a secret listening post: Snowden". The Myanmar Times. Archived from the original on November 2, 2013. Retrieved October 31, 2013.
  14. ^ "WikiLeaks cables: Americans funded groups that stalled Burma dam project". The Guardian. September 30, 2011. Retrieved November 1, 2013.
  15. ^ "US to exchange ambassadors with Burma". BBC News. January 13, 2012. Retrieved November 11, 2019.
  16. ^ "Statement by the President on Burma". May 17, 2012 – via National Archives.
  17. ^ "Presidential Nomination Sent to the Senate". May 17, 2012 – via National Archives.
  18. ^ a b c d e "Derek Mitchell, 1st US ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years, presents credentials to start work". The Associated Press. Times Colonist. Archived from the original on February 5, 2013. Retrieved July 12, 2012.
  19. ^ Vandenbrink, Rachel (July 11, 2012). "US to Invest in Burma's Oil". Radio Free Asia. Retrieved July 12, 2012.
  20. ^ a b c d Lowrey, Annie (July 11, 2012). "U.S. Sanctions on Myanmar Formally Eased". The New York Times. Retrieved July 12, 2012.
  21. ^ a b DeYoung, Karen (July 12, 2012). "Ban on U.S. investment in Burma is lifted". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 12, 2012.
  22. ^ Calderon, Justin (May 21, 2013). "Myanmar president adheres to reforms". Inside Investor. Retrieved May 23, 2013.
  23. ^ McDonald, Marc (July 12, 2012). "Rights Groups Assail U.S. Decision on Myanmar". The New York Times. Retrieved July 14, 2012.
  24. ^ "Joint Statement". September 14, 2016 – via National Archives.
  25. ^ a b "Accountability for Human Rights Abuses in Rakhine State, Burma". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved November 16, 2018.
  26. ^ Schwartz, Felicia (October 24, 2017). "Plight of Rohingya in Myanmar Stokes Congressional Concern; Administration warns of sanctions against Myanmar officials". The Wall Street Journal. ProQuest 1954678872.
  28. ^ "United States Sanctions Human Rights Abusers and Corrupt Actors Across the Globe | U.S. Department of the Treasury". Retrieved November 16, 2018.
  29. ^ "Treasury Sanctions Commanders and Units of the Burmese Security Forces for Serious Human Rights Abuses | U.S. Department of the Treasury". Retrieved November 16, 2018.
  30. ^ "Documentation of Atrocities in Northern Rakhine State". U.S. Department of State. Archived from the original on September 25, 2018. Retrieved November 16, 2018.
  31. ^ "Ongoing U.S. Humanitarian Assistance for the Rakhine State Crisis". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved November 16, 2018.
  32. ^ Barros, Aline (February 3, 2020). "Expansion of US Travel Restrictions Explained". VOA News. Retrieved February 17, 2021.
  33. ^ Wintour, Patrick; Bolger, Julian (February 1, 2021). "Myanmar coup: Joe Biden threatens to resume sanctions". The Guardian. Retrieved February 3, 2021.
  34. ^ Payne, Daniel (February 10, 2021). "Biden announces sanctions on Myanmar after coup". Politico. Retrieved February 10, 2021.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cooper, Amy. "Burmese Americans." Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, edited by Thomas Riggs, (3rd ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2014), pp. 373–380. online
  • Matray, James I. ed. East Asia and the United States: An Encyclopedia of relations since 1784 (2 vol. Greenwood, 2002). excerpt v 2

External links[edit]