US to review sanctions after by-elections

US Senator Mitch McConnell has said Washington will likely review sanctions after Burma’s by-elections in April, following talks with Aung San Suu Kyi that convinced him positive changes were underway inside the country.

The US was among the first countries to praise the release of hundreds of political prisoners on Friday last week. Following the amnesty, it announced it would restore its ambassador to Burma after decades in which it held an isolationist policy towards the country.

In a press briefing on Friday, a senior state department official also said the White House had discussed with Aung San Suu Kyi the continuing use of Burma over Myanmar by the US government, an issue “that will be addressed in due course”.

McConnell told reporters following his meeting last week with the opposition leader, who will contest a seat in parliament in the 1 April vote, that “in the wake of [the by-elections] I think it would be appropriate for us to further consider in the US the various sanctions that we have in place”.

He also praised the recent ceasefire between the government and Karen National Union (KNU), but has said that an end to all violence against ethnic groups, particularly the Kachin in the north, was a key prerequisite for lifting sanctions.

Washington’s shift in attitude towards Burma mirrors that of the EU, which also slapped sanctions on the country in response to human rights violations committed by the regime. EU sanctions are up for review in April, and the feeling is that the amnesty coupled with Suu Kyi’s probable entry to parliament could prompt a major shift in 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.

Also impeding an end to sanctions is Burma’s ties with North Korea. Tom Countryman, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs, is due in Burma soon to attempt to gain a clearer understanding of the current state of the relationship. The state department official said that parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann, who was ranked third in the former junta, had spearheaded those ties and “indicated [to the US] that probably he had some regret about that”.

The official, who was not named, added that the US was also concerned about money flows to North Korea from Burma in exchange for missiles. “And these kinds of surreptitious connections with respect to proliferation, we believe, undermine a larger peace and stability.”

US Senator Jim Webb, who has visited Burma several times and is credited with leading the engagement drive, also said recently that the US would seek to facilitate economic development in Burma, an effort that will likely necessitate some relaxation of sanctions.

The US announced late last year that it would drop its blockade of World Bank and IMF programmes in the country which had been a component of the economic blockade. Washington will also loosen restrictions to UN Development Program (UNDP) funding in the country, particularly in the areas of health and microfinance.

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