Interagency Awareness and Cooperation Workshop on Strategic Trade Management in Myanmar

June 24-26, 2015
Yangon, Myanmar

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The US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) and the Pacific Forum CSIS, in collaboration with the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS), held the 1st Interagency Awareness and Cooperation Workshop on Strategic Trade Management in Yangon, Myanmar on June 24-26, 2015. Some 30 Myanmar experts, officials, military officers, and academics along with representatives from DOE/NNSA, US Department of State, Pacific Forum CSIS, and subject matter experts from Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia attended, all in their private capacity. The off-the-record discussions covered international perspectives on proliferation and illicit trafficking networks, global norms for managing strategic goods, the current status of strategic trade controls in ASEAN, the economic drivers for implementation of strategic trade controls, the role of national legislation, regulatory frameworks, control lists, licensing procedures, detection and enforcement, public-private partnerships, partner capacity-building and assistance, and the efforts associated with track-1.5 work on strategic trade controls in the Asia Pacific. Key findings from this meeting are outlined below.

The Myanmar delegation included a good mix of experts, including people from Customs, Commerce, Foreign Affairs, Science and Technology, Defense, and academia. While willing to engage with their US counterparts (as suggested by strict attendance by everyone to the three-day meeting), Myanmar participants took time to “warm up” and fully take part in the discussion or ask questions. A key lesson for the next round is that planning for sufficient engagement time is critical to build relationships and achieve results. Given Myanmar’s long isolation from the international community and experience with sanctions, it is critically important that participants are made to feel that they can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. 

Throughout the dialogue, the majority of the Myanmar participants remained in listening mode. This seemed to be partly due to natural timidity, but also a response to the overwhelming level of detail contained in many of the presentations. Several participants noted in private that it would be necessary for them and their colleagues at the relevant ministries to study the content of the presentations to gain a fuller understanding of the requirements associated with national implementation of strategic trade controls. Accordingly, they were encouraged to follow up with the presenters if they required further clarification regarding the information presented.                                                                                  

Questions came mainly from people from Customs. Generally speaking, Myanmar participants recognized the advantages of adopting and implementing strategic trade controls, but lack capacity to do so and/or need to seek clarification on how to start and proceed with the process. A recurring question was which ministry should drive this process. From the discussion, it became clear that the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development should be a key player in shaping Myanmar’s national program. The next round of engagement would benefit from a Myanmar presentation on the country’s implementation status of strategic trade controls, if only to establish a baseline to measure progress.

While Myanmar participants recognized that implementation of a high-standard strategic trade control program is necessary, their interest in moving forward seems primarily motivated by the prospect of becoming a member of good standing in ASEAN and the international community, rather than in full recognition that proliferation is a threat. As one Myanmar participant put it, “to us, proliferation is a distant threat.” More explanations are needed to help Myanmar participants realize that proliferation can negatively affect them both in a direct and indirect manner.

Language matters. In Southeast Asia, it is paramount to talk about strategic trade controls rather than export controls because the incentives for implementation are driven primarily by an interest in promoting trade rather than focusing on exports. One common misperception noted during the discussion was that several Myanmar participants did not think many of its exports qualified as “strategic.” By including controls on transit, trans-shipment, intangible transfers of technology (ITT), financial services, brokering and, in some cases, even imports, there was a recognition that a strategic trade control program would help facilitate Myanmar’s participation in trading networks in the region. Focusing on managing risk, promoting compliance, and enhancing international communication and cooperation makes it easier for proponents to encourage top leaders to implement a comprehensive program.

Some Myanmar participants, particularly from Defense, did question the benefits of strategic trade controls, in particular as they relate to economic development and trade promotion. The explanations provided by presenters seemed to help alleviate concerns. A dose of skepticism about strategic trade controls is bound to remain latent in Myanmar, however. The next round of engagement with Myanmar should include presentations on the security and economic advantages of strategic trade controls, ideally given by fellow ASEAN counterparts.

Myanmar participants seemed receptive to the presentations given by their Malaysian and Singaporean colleagues, who focused on issues more directly relevant to ASEAN and the size of Myanmar’s economy. The next round of engagement should seek to include more presenters from ASEAN and let them drive the discussion. Presentations on how fellow ASEAN states have developed and implemented their strategic trade controls would be useful.

Several Myanmar participants articulated a commitment to developing a national strategic trade control program as a fundamental part of promoting the ASEAN Economic Community, especially in the context of implementing the AEC blueprint to create a single market and production base; promote the free flow of goods, services, investment, and capital within the community; and ensure the community is competitive in the international economy.

As is the case with many other discussions, the greatest inhibitor is not lack of interest or lack of appreciation for the relevance of strategic trade controls but the capacity and training necessary to undertake such an effort.

For more information, please contact Ralph A. Cossa or David Santoro at the Pacific Forum CSIS. These are preliminary findings aimed at providing a general summary of the discussion. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of DOE/NNSA or imply endorsement of the US government.