EU suspends visa ban on Burmese FM

The European Union has said it will suspend for one year a freeze on assets and travel restrictions for high-ranking Burmese government ministers, including foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin.

The announcement forms part of a review of EU policy to crisis-torn states, including Middle Eastern and African nations now caught in the midst of popular uprisings.

Its decision to relax tight restrictions on four ministers and 18 vice-ministers is, according to a statement released by the Council of the European Union, a sign that the EU is willing “to encourage and respond to improvements in governance and progress, in the hope that a greater civilian character of the Government will help in developing much needed new policies”.

The statement refers to elections in November last year that supposedly ushered in a new era of civilian rule in Burma, although critics have been quick to point out that the new government is overwhelmingly dominated by former junta officials.

It also said that the decision to lift a one-year suspension of the visa ban on Wunna Maung Lwin stemmed from his role “as an essential interlocutor”, perhaps signifying the EU’s aim for greater engagement with the new government. EU ambassador to Burma, David Lipman, told the BBC last week that the EU “recognised that there have been changes in the government”.

Prior to his appointment as the new foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin had been Burma’s ambassador to the European Commission. He left his post in the Burmese military a decade ago.

Khin Maung Swe, leader of the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF) party, said that the shift in policy might be tied to perceptions within the EU that blanket sanctions on Burma are not effective.

“We learnt immediately after the ending [a party discussion with EU officials] that they will reconsider some, if not all, of the issues they mentioned [regarding sanctions]. I believe this decision came from the idea that partial cooperation [with the government] is necessary for Burma.”

Since the government was sworn in last month with former prime minister Thein Sein as Burma’s new president, state media has regularly carried commentary and speeches from top officials asserting the transition to civilian governance.

Nyan Win, spokesperson for the disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD), said however that there has been little sign of tangible change on the ground.

“The government should carry out, and not just talk about, procedures to show they are really looking to change. If they do so, the EU may decide to ease more restrictions and if they don’t, then there will be consequences.”

The EU statement said its decision came after holding discussions with “a broad range of stakeholders, including civil society, opposition groups, ASEAN members and regional and international partners”.

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