Obama Declines to Lift U.S. Sanctions on Myanmar

May 17, 2012
U.S. companies fear competitors from other countries will seize the market if sanctions remain.

President Barack Obama on Thursday extended U.S. sanctions against Myanmar, warning that despite progress on human rights and governmental reform, a political opening in the country remained "nascent."

Obama's move came despite calls from some business and political leaders in the United States, Europe and Asia for sanctions to be lifted to spur further reforms by Myanmar's nominally civilian government under President Thein Sein.

But democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who for years led opposition to Myanmar's former military junta, warned this week that change was not irreversible in Myanmar and cautioned about excessive optimism.

Obama said Myanmar had made progress in a number of areas including by releasing political prisoners, pursuing cease-fire talks with ethnic groups and by opening dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

"Burma has made important strides, but the political opening is nascent, and we continue to have concerns, including remaining political prisoners, ongoing conflict, and serious human rights abuses in ethnic areas," he said.

"I have determined that it is necessary to continue the national emergency with respect to Burma and to maintain in force the sanctions that respond to this threat," Obama said in a message to Congress using Myanmar's former name.

U.S. law requires the president to restrict imports from Myanmar, which for decades was ruled by a military junta, and bans U.S. investment and export of financial services to the country.

It also blocks property and assets of certain members of the Myanmar ruling class.

Obama's administration has championed dialogue with Myanmar but has been cautious about a full lifting of sanctions, saying it needs to preserve leverage to encourage change.

Hillary Clinton made the first visit to Myanmar in 50 years by a U.S. secretary of state in December, and the two countries are moving towards exchanging ambassadors.

Obama's announcement was published hours before talks at the State Department between Clinton and Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.

It also took place on the eve of the G8 summit at Camp David, Maryland, which Obama will host and which is likely to include discussion about how to promote reform in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi, sworn in May 2 as a member of parliament after spending most of the past two decades under house arrest, spoke to a gathering of U.S. politicians and rights advocates including ex-president George W. Bush, via Skype this week.

"I am not against the suspension of sanctions as long as the people of the United States feel that this is the right thing to do at the moment. I do advocate caution, though," she said.

She warned that she felt sometimes that "people are too optimistic about the scene in Burma. You have to remember that the democratization process is not irreversible."

Suu Kyi said that reforms would only be considered irreversible once the military -- long Myanmar's most powerful institution with a history of abuses -- firmly committed to changing its ways.

The views of Suu Kyi, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, are considered critical to any U.S. decision to lift decades worth of sanctions on Myanmar.

U.S. companies have been eager to enter Myanmar, fearing Asian and European competitors will seize the growing market. The Obama administration plans to allow limited investment but is fine-tuning the rules, as human rights groups push for strict guidelines.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2012

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