The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it would begin easing some sanctions on Burma, lifting restrictions on U.S. investments in the country in response to its decision to embrace democratic reforms.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cited elections held in Burma over the weekend as the latest sign that its once authoritarian leaders are committed to a democratic transition. She said that, by easing some sanctions, the Obama administration was delivering on its promise to “meet action with action.”
The move, however, falls far short of the demands of Burmese leaders, who have clamored in recent months for a wholesale lifting of the harshest U.S. trade sanctions. Such action would require the approval of Congress, whose members continue to express some skepticism over the permanence and sincerity of the Burmese government’s reformation.
Under the new plan, which does not remove sanctions on sectors that directly benefit the current government and its military, the Obama administration will bypass Congress through presidential waivers on national security grounds.
Officials said the plan was developed with the consultation of select human-rights groups and democracy advocates as well as with members of Congress. Still, some observers expressed alarm that the easing of sanctions may be too much too soon.
“Today will be the best day for the Burmese regime, which is still killing innocent civilians in ethnic areas in Burma,” said Aung Din, leader of the pro-democracy group U.S. Campaign for Burma.
In her announcement Wednesday, Clinton also said the administration will name an ambassador to Burma in coming days; establish a USAID mission and United Nations development program there; enable U.S. nonprofits to start initiatives focused on democracy-building, education and health; and approve U.S. visas for select government officials currently restricted by travel bans.
Burma, long ruled by a military junta, has remained internationally isolated, diplomatically and economically, because of its harsh treatment of ethnic minorities and crushing of any political opposition.
Sanctions put in place after particularly brutal crackdowns forbid international banks from conducting transactions within the country, leaving Burma, also known as Myanmar, as one of the few countries where credit cards can’t be used.
U.S. officials said they hope to free up electronic commerce in the country but that it will take more time, and coordination with European allies, to do so.
While U.S. officials described the lifting of restriction on U.S. investment in Burma as an important step, they said it may not have an immediate effect. Sectors that directly benefit the government, including gem-mining and timber, will not be affected.
Global companies have dropped into Burma in recent years to test the waters, but they have “come back with their tail between their legs because the business environment simply isn’t conducive to investment,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a huge rush to invest,” he said. “So the ball is now in Burma’s court. They have to create the environment for business investment.”
In an election year, the Obama administration is increasingly touting the progress in Burma as perhaps the best, if only, validation of its decision early on to engage with authoritarian regimes.
In her statement, Clinton recalled the early days when the administration “believed that a new approach was needed to support the aspirations of the people” and vowed that it would “continue our policy of engagement that has encouraged these efforts.”
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, praised the administration’s latest move but cautioned that more needed to be done to solidify true reform.
“They’re treating the sanctions as a dial that can be calibrated rather than just retaining them completely or lifting them wholesale,” he said. “They could use it to boost the fortunes of reformers in Burma while disadvantaging those still standing in the way.”
U.S. officials will soon have a chance to communicate their message more directly to the Burmese. Among the first to likely be granted a visa is Burma’s health minister, Pe Thet Khin, who is scheduled to arrive on Sunday to visit Johns Hopkins University and discuss possible public health partnerships, according the university.
Another high-level delegation including close advisers to President Thein Sein is also in the works, according to some democracy advocates who have been briefed on that trip.