US supports ‘reformers’ in Burma with sanction cuts
Lindsay Murdoch, PHNOM PENH (SMH): Declaring it would stand by Burma’s reformers, the US has announced it will ease restrictions on investments and offer other rewards to the impoverished nation after last weekend’s sweeping byelection victory by democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, praised the ”leadership and courage” of Burma’s President, Thein Sein, a former general, after the byelection that will lead to Ms Suu Kyi enter parliament and become opposition leader for the first time.
”The United States will stand with the reformers and democrats both inside the government and in the larger civil society as they work together for that more hopeful future that is the right of every single person,” Mrs Clinton said.
Her remarks will strengthen the position of Burma’s reformers who are opposed by conservative elements in the military dominated government who stand to lose if the country opens extensively to foreign investment.
The conservatives have been shocked by the scale of the victory by Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy despite the emergence of widespread voter irregularities during campaigning.
The NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested, delivering a crushing defeat to the ruling, military linked party.
Mrs Clinton spoke hours after 10 south-east Asian leaders called on Western countries, including Australia, to lift sanctions imposed for two decades over human rights abuses.
Thein Sein told the leaders’ meeting in Cambodia that his government had accepted the result and his advisers saw the byelection as an opportunity for ruling MPs to accept their mistakes and prepare for the general election in 2015.
In taking the first steps towards normalising relations, the US announced that restrictions on operations by non-government organisations would be lifted and US officials would co-ordinate aid programs in democracy-building and health, and that a US Agency for International Development office would be opened.
The US will name its first ambassador to Burma since 1990 shortly and travel bans on some Burmese officials and MPs will be lifted. Mrs Clinton also announced restrictions on Burma’s financial sector would be eased, which could allow credit card companies such as Visa, MasterCard and American Express to be used in the country for the first time, making it easier for travellers visiting Burma.
US officials said easing the financial sanctions on ”electronic commerce” would be a priority.
Burma launched a new foreign exchange regime this week and plans to open a new stock market and give its central bank greater independence.
Mrs Clinton, who visited Burma last year, said the American moves were ”the beginning of the process” of a ”targeted easing of our ban on the export of US financial services and investment”.
The US has multiple layers of trade and investment restrictions on Burma and most of these will remain in place for the time being.
Some leaders in the US Congress have said that ending human rights violations by Burma’s army against ethnic groups would be taken into account when deciding to ease or remove the sanctions.
Burma’s leaders have been negotiating ceasefires with armed ethnic groups in border areas. Karen representatives, who have waged one of the world’s longest insurgencies against the Burmese regime, restarted ceasefire negotiations on Wednesday.
But Mrs Clinton warned that bans would stay in place on individuals and institutions that remain ”on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts”. The reform process has a long way to go, she said.
”The future is neither clear nor certain, but we will continue to monitor developments closely and meet, as I said when I was there, action with action.”
The European Union is due to make an announcement similar to that of the US within weeks, EU diplomats said.
Australia is also expected to follow suit and further ease sanctions after lifting travel restrictions on some Burmese politicians and officials last year.