The United States on Monday eased one of its many sanctions against Myanmar as a reward for political reforms after five decades of direct military rule.
The step is very limited, and most of the tough U.S. economic, trade and political restrictions will remain in place.
But it should make it easier for Myanmar, also known as Burma, to secure help from the World Bank and other international financial institutions by lifting U.S. opposition to them conducting assessments.
Under anti-human trafficking legislation, the U.S. had to oppose these bodies using their funds to help Myanmar. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed the waiver Monday.
President Barack Obama authorized the move on Friday.
Other U.S. sanctions, including the 2003 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, still require the U.S. to prevent the institutions from giving loans or technical assistance to the country. Years of mismanagement, isolation and internal conflict have turned what was once one of Southeast Asia’s most prosperous countries into its least-developed.
The waiver follows Clinton’s landmark visit to Myanmar in December, the first by a U.S. secretary of state in 56 years, when she expressed willingness to allow World Bank assessment missions. She said that was supported by Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
A State Department statement Monday said such assessments would enable greater understanding of Myanmar’s economic situation, particularly its “severe poverty alleviation needs.”
“The United States remains committed to supporting and partnering with the Burmese government along the path of reform,” it said.
But administration officials and U.S. lawmakers, who have been instrumental in imposing myriad and overlapping sanctions on Myanmar since 1988, say more progress on democracy and human rights is needed before other sanctions can be lifted.
Free and fair conduct of by-elections that Suu Kyi and her party will contest April 1 are seen as a key test of that. There is also concern over ethnic violence and Myanmar’s ties to North Korea.
The waiver, effective through September, applies to some but not all of the restrictions that apply to Myanmar under the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. Myanmar received a “Tier 3” rating under its annual State Department assessment, meaning it has failed to comply with minimum standards for elimination of human trafficking.
Ambassador-at-large on human trafficking issues, Luis CdeBaca, who visited Myanmar in January, said Monday the waiver was rewarding Myanmar for its political reforms, including prisoner releases, the dialogue it has begun with Suu Kyi and cease-fires with ethnic minority armed groups.
But he said it also reflected the government’s encouraging steps in improving its treatment of human trafficking victims, particularly those repatriated from other countries, although the U.S. remains concerned over authorities’ use of forced labour and child soldiers.
“We have seen several decent things happen on the human trafficking front,” CdeBaca told The Associated Press. “They (Myanmar) are not out of the woods by any means. But just as with democracy and electoral reforms, we also see the beginning of a positive trend.”
The Obama administration has reversed a long-standing U.S. policy of isolating Myanmar, and in January announced it would restore full diplomatic relations after 20 years without an ambassador in Myanmar.
That step was supported by key Republican senators, but the administration must still tread cautiously in lifting other restrictions or face criticism for moving too fast to win friends in the country, where the strings of power largely remain in military hands.
Myanmar and its neighbours in Southeast Asia are urging Western nations to lift sanctions now, and the European Union has already moved to lift some travel sanctions on Myanmar government officials.
One complicating factor in resuming loans to Myanmar is that it remains in arrears to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. The two banks approved their last loans for Myanmar in 1987.