Yesterday the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) amended the Burmese Sanctions Regulations to broaden the scope of permissible trade with Burma. The Burma regulations, which have been amended piecemeal rather than simply re-issued, remain a complex and confusing mess with prohibitions in one section repealed in a later section. (Why not just remove the first provision, you ask? Don’t be silly, I answer. Do you want lawyers to starve?)
So, for example, section 537.202 prohibits the “exportation … to Burma of any financial services,” which effectively eliminates all trade with Burma because transferring money to Burma is considered an “export of financial services” in OFAC-ese. But if you keep reading the regulations, then you’ll find all the way at the end of the Burma regulations another provision, section 537.529, which says the exact opposite and says that exports of financial services to Burma are authorized. Of course, as is always the case, you still can’t transfer money, er, export financial services, to any blocked party.
Of course, that was all well and good until OFAC discovered that the best port in Burma, and the one through which almost all goods went to and from Burma, was owned by Asia World, a blocked party, effectively foreclosing U.S. trade with Burma. So on December 7, 2015, issued General License No. 20 which allowed all transactions “ordinarily incident to an exportation to or from” Burma as long as it did not involve an exportation of goods to a blocked party.
Although it’s not entirely clear that shipping goods through a blocked port isn’t an export to or from a blocked party, the intent, if not the language, was clear and the port at Yangon was back in business, at least until June 7, 2016, when General License 20 was set to expire. Yesterday’s amendment moved General License No. 20 to a new section 537.532, effectively eliminating the expiration date for dealing with Yangon Port or other blocked individuals while moving goods to and from Burma.
Yesterday’s amendment also dealt with a similar problem confronting U.S. persons residing in Burma, although there was no comparable General License and this issue is now being addressed for the first time by OFAC. Blocked parties have pervasive ownership interests in Burma. Asia World, for example, owns toll roads, airports, hotels, electric companies and supermarkets. The new section 537.525 allows all transactions by U.S. persons “ordinarily incident to the routine and necessary maintenance within Burma,” other than transactions related to employment of a U.S. person by a blocked party. With this amendment, U.S. persons living in Burma will not have to worry that they’ll have to pay OFAC a $250,000 fine on top of a $1 highway toll, a $2 bread loaf purchase or a $30 electricity bill.
Finally, the amendment is intended to permit transactions with and through almost all banks in Burma. In addition to a number of other entities, the amendment removed three blocked banks from the SDN List and from the general license in section 537.531 since it would no longer be necessary for those banks. It also added two blocked banks to that general license. Of course, this still leaves the issue that we’ve talked about before. Nothing in the SDN listings for these five banks covered by the general license references the general license. So screening software will still show these banks as hits, and funds will be needlessly blocked.