The United States on Thursday announced an easing of investment and financial restrictions to reciprocate nascent reforms in Burma but said it will maintain wider sanctions amid human rights and ethnic conflict concerns.
The two countries also said they will exchange ambassadors to reflect a new chapter in bilateral relations during the first visit to Washington in decades by a Burmese foreign minister.
“As an iron fist has unclenched in Burma, we have extended our hand, and are entering a new phase in our engagement,” President Barack Obama declared in a statement, warning however that the U.S. “remains concerned” about the Southeast Asian country’s political system.
American companies, which have been banned from Burma for the past 15 years, will now be issued licenses to invest in the country, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as she announced a suspension of sanctions across all sectors of the economy and the export of financial services.
She described it as the most significant action the United States has taken so far to reward reforms being implemented by Burmese President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government that came to power in March last year, replacing decades of brutal military rule.
“So today, we say to American business: Invest in Burma and do it responsibly; be an agent of positive change and be a good corporate citizen; let’s all work together to create jobs, opportunity, and support reform,” Clinton said.
American companies will be free to look for opportunities in oil, mining, gas, and other industries, she said, but the U.S. will prevent companies from working with Burmese groups that have abused human rights.
“We will keep our eyes wide open to try to ensure that anyone who abuses human rights or obstructs reforms or engages in corruption does not benefit financially from increased trade and investment with the United States, including companies owned or operated by the military,” Clinton said.
Washington will also maintain an arms embargo on Burma in line with the actions of the EU, which announced a one-year suspension of sanctions last month, as well as Canada and Australia.
“This is a moment for us to recognize that the progress which has occurred in the last year toward democratization and national reconciliation is irreversible,” Clinton said, speaking at a press conference with Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.
While Wunna Maung Lwin was on the first visit to the U.S. by a Burmese foreign minister in decades, the two countries named ambassadors to each other’s capitals, formalizing diplomatic relations for the first time since Washington withdrew its ambassador in 1990.
Obama named Derek Mitchell as ambassador, pending confirmation by the Senate. Mitchell is currently serving as the State Department’s first Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma.
Wunna Maung Lwin said Burma’s ambassador to the U.S. will be Than Shwe, who is the country’s current representative to the U.N. in New York and has the same name as the former military general and junta leader.
Even though sanctions are suspended, the laws relating to them will be “kept on the books” so that they can be quickly reinstated if Burma backslides on reforms, Clinton said.
Obama renewed the state of national emergency for Burma, the precondition for the legal framework to maintain the sanctions which was set to expire next week.
"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," Obama said.
Burma’s release of hundreds of political prisoners in January prompted warmer ties, but the opposition groups, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, say around 300 people remain locked up for their political activities.
Asked whether Burma would release more political prisoners, as the Burmese opposition has called for, Wunna Maung Lwin said it “will grant further amnesty when appropriate.”
Ethnic fighting in northern Burma’s Kachin state has also marred the country’s democratic reforms.
Clinton expressed concern about the ongoing violence in Kachin state, saying the U.S. is “very committed to supporting the end of the ethnic conflicts in the country."
Earlier this week, Aung San Suu Kyi had cautioned against being “too optimistic” about Burma’s political future, saying that its democratic transition should not be “taken for granted.”
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.