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Sanctions against Myanmar lifted, it's time to raise the bar on reform

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi , right, smiles as Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird talks to reporters after their meeting at her home in Yangon March 8, 2012.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

You could forgive John Baird for running out of script now that he's suspended sanctions against Myanmar. But he'd better not lose the plot entirely.

Things have moved fast in the former Burma, faster than the rest of the world ever expected. It was time to suspend blanket economic sanctions, as Mr. Baird did Tuesday. It marked a milestone: Iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to parliament in by-elections. But even so, Myanmar has not suddenly been completely transformed to a free and open democracy. And there are vested interests who will fight further reforms.

Myanmar surprised Canada and other Western countries by meeting their benchmarks for reform, so much so that they aren't sure what they should do next. Now that sanctions are being suspended, Ottawa and its allies must set new benchmarks and nudge them along with diplomacy.

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For Stephen Harper's government, this is a test. For years, it touted tough sanctions against repressive Myanmar. When President Thein Sein started to make reforms real, Mr. Baird, to his credit, engaged, including visiting the remote capital of Naypyidaw last month. Now the test is whether it stays involved as the diplomacy becomes more complicated.

It's not just a question of consistency, but one of shaping Canada's relations with the region. Ottawa is seeking to increase ties with the rising economies of Southeast Asia and Myanmar is a member of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc. The ASEAN countries always viewed sanctions as a hurdle and they'd like to see Ottawa play a role in ensuring Myanmar doesn't return to pariah status.

Change has come to Myanmar with a speed that seemed impossible 18 months ago. Mr. Baird noted that when he first met Myanmar's foreign minister last summer, he was making modest requests like guarantees for Ms. Suu Kyi's safety. But there is resistance. The military dominates the country, and its privileged position is threatened by a change in power. Mr. Baird noted lifting sanctions is aimed at convincing people of the reward in reforms, opening trade that could boost Myanmar's desolate economy.

But he had little to say about what should come next. Mr. Baird conceded he and other foreign ministers are still catching their breath.

"I think, frankly, many of my counterparts, foreign ministers from around the world, have paused and just not known how to act because the change has been so quick and there hasn't been a revolution, there hasn't been violence. And Canada wants to support that – that change," Mr. Baird told reporters on Tuesday. "If it is reversed or abandoned, obviously we'll change course as well."

But that's not a policy. Canada, like the European Union, Australia and some others, is suspending sanctions. The United States is expected to ease its soon. But a threat to reimpose them can only be carried out once.

What's missing is a big part of the international policy that has succeeded so far: benchmarks. Myanmar has met the benchmarks that were set – releasing political prisoners and allowing an opposition role in by-elections – with surprising speed. But now there's no clear expectations of what should come next. "There's a kind of vacuum," one Asian diplomat said.

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The biggest milestone will be whether 2015 general elections lead to a change in power. But Julius Kurlantzick, of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, argues more incremental benchmarks are needed now: a road map toward those elections, some mechanism to improve its record on human rights and progress on settling ethnic conflicts like those with Kachin rebels.

The obvious carrot to offer to encourage progress is aid: programs to provide health care and education would be an immediate boost in the poorest country in the region. Ottawa, now cutting its aid budget, may plead poverty, but Myanmar should be a priority.

And the Harper government should reinforce the benchmarks with diplomacy: by offering technical assistance, advice and diplomatic exchanges, and by co-ordinating a message with Western and Asian countries that Myanmar doesn't have to be isolated again.

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

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