WASHINGTON — The Obama administration extended Thursday by one year targeted US sanctions against Burma, a move aimed at preventing backsliding on democratic reforms.
But to sweeten the pill, the administration eased some of the US visa restrictions imposed against Burma’s former military regime in recognition of the nation’s dramatic shift from authoritarian rule.
The actions come as expectation mounts that Burma’s reformist President Thein Sein will visit the White House this month. It would be the first such visit by a Burma leader since 1966.
Congressional staffers and a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it, told The Associated Press such plans were in the works. President Barack Obama visited the country in November.
The administration has yet to announce a visit by Burma’s leader, which could stir controversy because of an explosion of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Arakan State in recent months that has spread to central Burma and left hundreds dead and more than 100,000 displaced. Most of the victims have been minority Muslims.
While there’s still broad bipartisan backing in Congress for the administration’s efforts to support and strengthen the hand of Burma reformers like Thein Sein, the unrest, and Burma authorities’ failure to prevent it, has stirred concern in some quarters about the human rights situation in the country and of moving too fast to lift restrictions.
“While I’m still waiting to hear details of these and other potential moves,” Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley said of Thursday’s announcement, “I urge the administration to stick to its policy of action for action.”
Last year, the United States normalized diplomatic relations and using a presidential waiver, suspended broad trade and investment sanctions. That followed the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the release and election to Parliament of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who visited the United States in September.
The administration, however, retained targeted restrictions against some officials and cronies of the former regime—the authority extended Thursday—and the option of re-imposing the broader sanctions if need be.
While human rights groups say Washington is being too accommodating to Burma, where the military is still accused of serious abuses in ethnic regions, the European Union has moved even faster to roll back restrictions, paving the way for unimpeded economic ties in one of Asia’s last unexplored markets.
The 27-nation bloc last week announced it was lifting sanctions—previously only suspended—to support the country’s “remarkable process” toward democracy, even as it warned that the Southeast Asian nation must curb the recent outbursts of ethnic violence. Like the United States, the European Union retains an embargo on arms sales to Burma.
The Obama administration is keen to laud reforms by Thein Sein’s government but restated Thursday its demand that it unconditionally release the remaining political prisoners and sever all military ties with North Korea, and end violence that has resurfaced in areas such as Arakan State.
The administration terminated a 1996 visa ban but narrower prohibitions remain in place under other legislation, specifically forbidding travel by those who impede reforms and are implicated in rights abuses or military trade with North Korea.