Australia softens sanctions on Myanmar; UK favors suspension

British Prime Minister David Cameron meets with Thein Sein, the president of Myanmar, on Friday.

Story highlights

  • Australia highlights the release of political prisoners and peace efforts with ethnic groups
  • It significantly reduces the number of Myanmar officials subject to travel restrictions
  • The Australian government also normalizes trade relations with the country
  • Myanmar's military rulers have begun loosening their grip on power in recent months

Australia said Monday that it was relaxing sanctions on Myanmar, responding to the Southeast Asian country's political reforms by significantly reducing the number of government officials and lawmakers subject to travel restrictions.

The Australian government said it would also encourage trade with Myanmar, which had long languished under oppressive military rule. Australia's previous stance had been to neither encourage nor discourage trade and investment with Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

The announcement by Australia follows moves by a number of Western countries to reward recent efforts by the Myanmar president, Thein Sein, and his government to bring about change in the country, including holding by-elections earlier this month in which opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party won dozens of seats.

"Reducing our sanctions and encouraging trade recognize the far-reaching political, economic and social reforms we are witnessing in Burma in recent times," the Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr, said in a statement.

Carr and the trade minister, Craig Emerson, highlighted the recent release of hundreds of political prisoners, the pursuit of peace deals with ethnic groups and improved laws on freedom of expression, labor rights and political participation.

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The number of people in Myanmar subject to financial sanctions and travel restrictions by Australia will drop to about 130 from 392, the Australian statement said.

Thein Sein "and other reformists within the government and parliament will be removed from the list, while serving military figures and individuals of human rights concern will remain," according to the statement.

Australia will also maintain its arms embargo on Myanmar, it said.

After separate meetings with Thein Sein and Suu Kyi in Myanmar on Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said sanctions on the country should be suspended, rather than lifted entirely, to encourage further progress in democracy and human rights.

His suggestion was supported by Suu Kyi, who noted that a suspension would make it clear that sanctions could be reimposed if reforms are obstructed.

European Union foreign ministers said in January that they would suspend a visa ban on Thein Sein, as well as on Myanmar's vice presidents, cabinet members and speakers of parliament, calling it "a first step" that could be followed by a "further easing" of restrictions in the subsequent months.

The United States has said it will take several significant steps to normalize relations with Myanmar, including facilitating travel to the United States for select government officials and members of parliament.

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