US Lifts Myanmar Sanctions to Reward Reforms

US Lifts Myanmar Sanctions to Reward Reforms

The United States said it will ease restrictions on investment to Myanmar and quickly appoint an ambassador as it seeks to boost reformers who allowed landmark elections in the long-closed nation.

In its latest gestures under a three-year diplomatic drive on Myanmar, the United States said it would step up aid and allow select officials to visit, but stopped short of easing the bulk of two decades worth of biting sanctions.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the “leadership and courage” of President Thein Sein after the opposition swept Sunday’s by-elections, giving Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi her first seat in parliament.

Clinton said the United States would start easing restrictions on US investment and financial services in areas seen supporting reforms in the country formerly known as Burma.

Officials said they were deciding the exact measures and time frame, but that one priority would be to allow the use of credit cards in Myanmar, one of the few nations where MasterCard, Visa and American Express are never accepted.

Clinton — who paid a landmark visit to Myanmar in December — said the United States would complete formalities “in the coming days” to send an ambassador, completing a promised upgrade to full relations after a two-decade gap.

In other steps, the US Agency for International Development will set up a mission inside Myanmar to look at boosting its $35 million in annual aid, and private US organizations will be allowed to conduct a greater range of work inside Myanmar, including on health and education.

But Myanmar will stay under a number of tough sanctions set by the US Congress, including a ban on its key exports such as jade.

Clinton said the United States was still pressing for a release of all political prisoners and the end to restrictions on the hundreds recently freed.

She also called for reconciliation with minority groups and the “verifiable termination” of any military cooperation between Myanmar and North Korea, which plans to launch a long-range rocket this month.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top senator from the rival Republican Party whose approval is critical to confirm an ambassador, gave his “support in principle” to the measures announced by Clinton.

Aung Din, a former political prisoner and executive director of the US Campaign for Burma advocacy group, was more critical.

He said Myanmar’s leaders won “enormous” rewards even though Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will hold a tiny number of seats in the military-dominated parliament.

Representative Joe Crowley, a Democrat who has led sanctions legislation, said he was willing to examine the new steps but that Myanmar “has much more to do before convincing the international community that true change has taken place.”

President Barack Obama’s administration opened talks with Myanmar after taking office in 2009, concluding that years of Western efforts to isolate the then military leadership had failed.

Three years later, Myanmar is arguably a top showcase for Obama’s foreign policy as he seeks reelection, with the Republicans sharply criticizing his earlier outreach to other US foes such as Iran and Syria.

Thein Sein, a nominal civilian, took office last year to widespread skepticism. But he has surprised even many critics through reforms including opening talks with Suu Kyi, who had spent most of the past two decades under house arrest.

Some analysts attribute Myanmar’s shift to an unease over reliance on China, which has an outsized economic and political influence in its strategically placed neighbor.

The European Union has also been seeking to reward Myanmar and is leaning toward a “substantial” removal of sanctions, a senior EU diplomat told AFP in Brussels.