In the wake of a Burmese military coup, Joe Biden is considering reinstating sanctions on Burma that his own Asia policy czar repealed.
Kurt Campbell was the architect of President Obama's diplomatic engagement strategy with Burma and helped spearhead the repeal of many American investment and banking restrictions on the country while serving as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2009 to 2013. Those policies, which were criticized for rewarding the Burmese regime prematurely without gaining concessions, continued even after Campbell left the State Department, with additional economic restrictions rolled back in 2016.
Biden's moves are a signal that his administration is abandoning the softball diplomacy strategy charted by Campbell. "The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy," Biden said in a statement on Monday. "The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action."
Kyaw Win, a former Burmese politician and director of the Burma Human Rights Network, said the Obama administration's policies were ineffective because they rewarded antidemocratic leaders in Burma without demanding sufficient progress. He urged Biden to reimpose tough sanctions and support the prosecution of the country's military at the International Criminal Court.
"Since Burma started political reforms, [the] international community [has] reduced all the pressure previously imposed on the country," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "Ten years of democratic reforms have proved ineffective and Burma is back to square one."
At the State Department, Campbell led the diplomatic mediation with Burma, which resulted in lifting many trade and investment restrictions in 2012 and 2013. His reconciliation efforts with Burma were seen as one of the cornerstones of Obama's foreign policy. Hillary Clinton said the work was "a high point" of her time as secretary of state and a potential "milestone of our pivot [to Asia] strategy" in her memoir Hard Choices.
Campbell also defended the strategy against criticism at the time, arguing that the decision to roll back sanctions was taken "with great care and responsibly" and saying that the administration had no plans to change course.
"We think the step-by-step process has drawn wide support both in the business community and the international community," he said in 2012.
The United States imposed sanctions on Burma in the late 1980s, in response to a violent coup that led to the installation of an oppressive military junta. After President Obama took office in 2009, his administration pursued an engagement policy with Burma, urging then-president Thein Sein to institute democratic reforms in exchange for economic benefits.
But the move drew alarm from human rights activists. Aung Din, a former political prisoner and executive director with the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said in 2012 that the removal of sanctions "prematurely rewards the Burmese regime while the military undertakes a clear escalation of violence."
"The United States Congress and administration will be responsible for generously rewarding the regime if the war in Kachin State and human rights abuses in ethnic areas do not end, hundreds of remaining political prisoners are not released, and political settlements between the regime and ethnic resistance groups are not realized," Din said.
Almost immediately after leaving the State Department, Campbell launched a consulting firm and started vying for an airport-operation bid in Burma, Foreign Policy reported in May 2013. The move was met with sharp criticism from human rights advocates.
"For Kurt Campbell, when he was assistant secretary, economic interests were more of a priority than solving Burma's more long-term [human rights problems]," Jennifer Quigley of the U.S. Campaign for Burma said in a statement to the Free Beacon at the time.
Campbell lost the airport construction bid to the son of a Burmese drug lord and longtime military crony.