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The Burmese government on Tuesday welcomed the EU’s decision to lift sanctions against the former pariah state as “greatly beneficial” to the country’s democratic reform process, amid mounting criticism from human rights campaigners.
“The government believes that this decision will be greatly beneficial to the Myanmar [Burmese] people who have demonstrated their strong determination to achieve democratic reforms and have been actively supporting the government’s reform process during the last two years,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The EU’s decision to lift all sanctions against Burma, except its arms embargo, coincided with a controversial peace award being handed to President Thein Sein by the leading foreign affairs think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) on Monday evening.
“Myanmar [Burma] has initiated a remarkable and unprecedented set of reforms since President Thein Sein’s government took over in March 2011, including freeing hundreds of political prisoners, liberalising the press, and promoting dialogue with the main opposition party,” said the ICG’s chairman, Thomas R. Pickering, while presenting the award.
The prestigious “Pursuit of Peace Award” was handed over to President’s Office Minister Aung Min in a ceremony that praised Burma for making “very significant progress” toward democracy since Thein Sein took office. He shares the prize with former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
“At a time when so much of the world seems to be headed in the wrong direction, Myanmar and Brazil stand out as clear examples of presidents working for a better path for their people,” said Pickering, in a statement that is likely to draw ire from human rights groups, who have slated the EU’s decision to lift sanctions as “premature”.
The award came on the same day that Human Rights Watch released a scathing report, implicating the Burmese regime in ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingya minority in western Burma.
“The EU’s scrapping of targeted sanctions on Burma is premature and recklessly imperils human rights gains made so far,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch.
“EU member states are ditching measures that have motivated the current progress and gambling on the good will of Burma’s government and military to keep their word to keep reforms on track.”
Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) described Monday as “a sad day for Burma”, which “provided a striking example of the growing disconnect between the reality on the ground in Burma, and the policies of the international community.”
Some media analysts have described the ICG’s award as making a “mockery” of peace in a country, where numerous ethnic and religious conflicts have flared under Thein Sein’s rule.
Since taking office, the Burmese army has stepped up a bloody offensive in Kachin state, where ethnic minority rebels are fighting for greater autonomy and rights, and a wave of anti-Muslim violence has rippled through the country.