Despite warnings from campaigners that the government of Myanmar (Burma) has not yet proved its commitment to human rights and democracy, the chokehold of economic sanctions imposed on the country is gradually being loosened.
The United States, which implemented the toughest sanctions against the military junta in Myanmar, started lifting its restrictions following a visit in December by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
After by-elections in which democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy made major gains, Clinton announced new steps on April 4, including sending an ambassador to the country.
Derek Mitchell, who currently serves as special representative and policy coordinator for Myanmar, appears to be in line for the post.
The United States also plans to open an office of the U.S. Agency for International Development and to partially lift an investment ban. In addition, the U.S. Treasury Department announced in April that financial restrictions on providing funds to nonprofit organizations working in Myanmar would be lifted.
Most of the measures announced so far rely only on executive orders and are within the independent authority of U.S. President Barack Obama. A full removal of sanctions will require congressional approval because economic sanctions were written in law.
On May 4, U.S. Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, and others sent a letter to Clinton saying: "It is imperative for the United States to act in a clear, proactive manner to facilitate reforms in Burma through the lifting of economic sanctions."
Webb is chairman of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee under the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an influential voice in foreign policy in the region.
However, at a hearing of a House committee in late April, Representative Joseph Crowley, a Democrat from New York, urged caution in lifting sanctions because he said human rights violations continued in Myanmar.
The European Union has acted more quickly. EU foreign ministers agreed to temporarily freeze all sanctions except for the arms embargo, and, in late April, the EU opened an office in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon.
The moves will allow European companies to resume investment and trade in Myanmar’s lucrative gas, mineral extraction and lumber industries as well as other sectors. An official with a clothing industry organization said a number of major European companies had made inquiries about resuming business.
While Japan never implemented economic sanctions against Myanmar, its official development assistance was limited to humanitarian purposes.
Those restrictions have also been gradually relaxed since the latter half of 2011, allowing for use of such assistance to support the construction of social infrastructure and the resumption of yen loans.
At a news conference in Tokyo in April, Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, said: "The people will enjoy the benefits (of the lifting of sanctions). It will become easier for Japanese companies to invest if the United States also lifted its financial sanctions."
But the moves have been met with warnings from nongovernmental organizations that played a central role in the democracy movement. They are pointing out that some political prisoners are still being held and that cease-fire agreements with some ethnic minorities have not been signed.
In April, Tom Andrews, a former congressman, visited Kachin state in Myanmar, where fighting continues between Myanmar’s military and Kachin rebels.
In testimony in late April to the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Andrews said lifting economic sanctions too quickly would be dangerous. "To abandon this leverage prematurely would be to jeopardize the forward momentum that we have seen," he said.
The Burma Campaign UK issued a statement opposing the lifting of sanctions by the EU: "Burma is still a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world, and where the military has constitutional control over every level of government."
The EU, which plans to review its decision to freeze sanctions in six months, has called on Myanmar to establish a schedule for reform.
(This article was written by Takashi Oshima in Washington, Jun Nojima in Brussels and Kazutaka Ito in London.)
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