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EU to suspend Myanmar sanctions

April 20, 2012

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton meets with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after the country’s historic elections. (Photo: Reuters)

The EU will likely follow the US and other western countries in lifting sanctions on Myanmar following historic by-elections at the beginning of the month. Those elections were for 45 seats in the country’s parliament; the remaining seats in the 664-member parliament remain under the control of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. These elections were significant as the first competitive, multi-party elections since 1990. In those elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won, but the results were annulled by the military, which has ruled ever since. In the recent elections, Suu Kyi was elected to the parliament and her party won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs.

The elections came after Burmese President Thein Sein initiated a number of reforms after coming to power in 2011, by freeing political prisoners, beginning negotiations with rebel groups, and opening a dialogue with the opposition. The US announced earlier this week that it would lift certain sanctions regarding travel and financial transactions; Australia and the UK have made similar announcements. The EU move will likely be announced next Monday when foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg. They are expected to suspend economic sanctions and prohibitions on investment in Myanmar’s economy, but leave in place the current arms embargo against Myanmar. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had earlier urged caution in moving too fast on lifting sanctions, visited Myanmar last week and joined the chorus of those saying sanctions should be suspended.

Despite the widespread optimism in foreign circles about the seemingly genuine steps being taken in Myanmar to liberalize the political system, the Economist reports that the country has a long, arduous road in front of it. In particular, the article discusses the military’s domination of the economy in the provinces: “Across Myanmar, the national army has for years pursued a policy of ‘living off the land.’ Battalions are obliged to become their own farmers and businessmen in order to feed themselves and pay their wages.” The army has built up a corrupt, extraction-based political economy in the border regions, and is even heavily involved in the cultivation and trafficking of heroin. In short, despite Thein Sein’s pledges that the military no longer plays role in politics, Myanmar will have to undertake a sustained effort free all sectors of the economy from the military’s influence.

In any case, the EU is merely suspending, not cancelling sanctions. This means that they will be able to reinstate sanctions if Myanmar backtracks on political liberalization and undo the reforms that have been started.

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