White House relaxes some restrictions on Burma as rights record improves

LYNN BO BO/EPA - A Burmese policeman stands guard at People's Park near regional Parliament, in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma), on the eve of the arrival of President Obama, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, November 18 , 2012.

The Obama administration lifted sweeping travel restrictions on Burmese government officials Thursday in a further acknowledgment of the country’s progress in reversing decades of repressive policies.

But even as it lifted the 17-year-old travel ban, the White House moved to extend an emergency measure that allows U.S. officials to impose new sanctions in response to future human rights abuses by Burmese authorities, administration officials said.

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The mixed decision reflected what one administration official described as “a very bumpy process” as Burma’s civilian-led government seeks to extend civil rights to the country’s 48 million inhabitants while improving ties with the United States and other Western powers.

Although Burma has sought to reform its image after decades as an international pariah state, the country continues to suffer from spasms of ethnic and sectarian violence, most recently between Buddhists and a Muslim minority in central Rakhine province.

“Even as we recognize the government’s tremendous progress, we, of course, remain concerned that the nascent reforms remain vulnerable to elements within Burma that oppose a democratic transition,” a senior State Department official told reporters in describing the separate rulings promulgated by the White House.

The lifting of the visa ban — imposed in 1996 during the Clinton administration — was intended to “encourage and strengthen the reform process in Burma,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to describe diplomatically sensitive policy decisions.

The ban had systematically barred most Burmese government and military officials from traveling to the United States, in a symbolic protest against policies that denied basic freedoms to Burmese citizens and punished political dissenters with imprisonment and worse.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, abruptly altered its course two years ago in a bid to end decades of international isolation and economic sanctions. The civilian-led government of President Thein Sein has since freed thousands of political prisoners, allowed greater political expression and ended government fighting with several of the country’s ethnic minority tribal groups. In response, President Obama has moved to normalize ties with Burma and visited the country in person last fall.

Still, lingering concern over the country’s future prompted the decision to extend an emergency measure that allows U.S. officials to sanction Burmese officials and institutions in response to bad behavior, the senior administration official said.

“There are still problematic areas inside Burma,” the official said, “and where there are human rights abuses perpetuated, we are going to remain very much eyes wide open.”

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