U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday said Myanmar would have to change its constitution to guarantee civilian power if it is to see the remaining American economic sanctions on the country lifted.
Speaking in the country’s capital Naypyitaw after meeting with the country’s foreign minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr. Kerry said the key to lifting the remaining sanctions would be for Myanmar to show more progress in reducing the military’s influence as the country continues along the road to democracy. “It is very difficult to complete that journey, in fact impossible to complete that journey, with the current constitution,” Mr. Kerry said.
He was later scheduled to hold talks with Myanmar’s army chief before traveling to Vietnam, where President Barack Obama is due to arrive early Monday for a state visit.
The U.S., along with Europe and Japan, started lifting long-standing sanctions on Myanmar after the country’s former military government began ceding power to a civilian administration in 2011. Investment and trade were allowed in 2012, but sanctions against scores of companies and individuals were retained because of their ties to the previous regime.
Less than a week ago, the Obama administration dropped sanctions against seven state-owned enterprises and three state-owned banks, and introduced additional waivers to make it easier for American businesses to do business there without violating sanctions. No individuals were removed from the sanctions blacklist, while sanctions against one businessman, Steven Law, were extended to include six more companies he and his conglomerate, Asia World, control.
One of the main sticking points to dropping the sanctions entirely is the way Myanmar’s army still commands considerable influence over its political system, U.S. officials have said.
Among other things, the army-drafted constitution prohibits Ms. Suu Kyi from serving as president after her party’s landslide election win last November because of a clause barring anyone with foreign relatives being head of state. Ms. Suu Kyi’s two adult sons are British.
The military also controls Myanmar’s defense and interior ministries, effectively administering much of the country’s bureaucratic structure.
Moreover, the army is guaranteed 25% of the seats in parliament, and a vote of at least 75% is required to change the constitution.
Ms. Suu Kyi, who also holds the specially created post of state counselor while her confident Htin Kyaw was appointed president, said Sunday she didn’t regard the remaining sanctions as weighing on relations with the U.S., and predicted that Washington would remove them when the time was right.
“We’re not afraid of sanctions, we’re not afraid of scrutiny,” Ms. Suu Kyi said at a joint news conference with Mr. Kerry. “The time will come soon that the United States will know that this is no longer the time for sanctions.”
Still, there is tension between the U.S. and Myanmar over the treatment of the Muslim minority Rohingya, with tens of thousands living in squalid camps in the country’s west after sectarian clashes in recent years. Myanmar’s government, and many of the majority Buddhist population, regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refers to them as “Bengalis”, though many Rohingya can trace back their roots in Myanmar for generations. The Myanmar foreign ministry, which is headed by Ms. Suu Ky, has recently advised foreign embassies to stop using the term “Rohingya”.
Ms. Suu Kyi said using the label could inflame tensions. Mr. Kerry agreed the issue was sensitive, but said it couldn’t be ignored.
—Myo Myo in Yangon contributed to this article.