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The EU agreed to begin lifting sanctions on Burma today in a meeting between top-level officials in Brussels, which followed comments from British Foreign Secretary William Hague this morning that the bloc should reward progress in the country.
Although the EU is not due to officially review its sanctions policies until April, there is a feeling among ministers that the bloc should respond quickly to changes in Burma in a bid to spur greater reform. Hague had told reporters before the talks this afternoon that the EU “should recognise that [progress] in what we say and do at this meeting today”.
A statement released following the meeting said: “The Council decides, as a first step, that restrictive measures (visa ban) concerning the President, the vice Presidents, cabinet members and the Speakers of the two Houses of Parliament should be suspended…”. The bloc issued a suspension on certain visa bans, including that of Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, last year.
Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, described the changes underway in Burma as “quite extraordinary” in a briefing after the meeting.
“We’re working closely with Aung San Suu Kyi and I will visit Burma in coordination with her – we’ve done this entirely with her – probably around April time following the elections and will give her full support in what we hope will have been a very successful transition.”
Hague’s trip to Burma was the first by a British foreign secretary since Anthony Eden in 1955. He was followed quickly by his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, who pledged upon leaving that the EU would respond “in concrete terms to … significant gestures” enacted buy the government, which has introduced a bill legalising peaceful protest and eased its vice-like grip on the media.
Both the US and EU have been responsive to reforms enacted by the military-backed government, which is preparing to hold by-elections in April that could see opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi winning a seat in parliament.
But Hague’s remarks may surprise some observers, particularly given that Britain had long been a strong supporter of sanctions on Burma and had largely avoided the quick endorsement of the Thein Sein administration given by other EU member states such as Germany.
Moreover, the legitimacy of the looming by-elections was considered a key test of the government’s reformist intentions, and thus help to steer opinion on whether sanctions should remain in place. The decision to begin lifting them now, two months before the vote, will likely trigger accusations that the EU has been premature in revising its policy.
The issue of sanctions on Burma remains a contentious one: critics argue that such a poorly targeted policy is ineffective, even that it hurts Burmese people and hinders much-needed international aid from reaching the country. But with the government dominated by former or serving military men and attacks on ethnic minorities ongoing, proponents of sanctions say they should remain, but be finely-tuned to better target hawkish government officials and business cronies.
What will have particularly irked the 27-nation bloc is the ban on EU companies entering resource-rich Burma, which has instead opened its doors to the likes of Thailand,Singapore and China, with the latter pouring billions of dollars in investment capital into the country over the past year.