WASHINGTON — President Obama pledged Wednesday to lift all remaining sanctions against Myanmar, seeking to reward the country’s recent moves toward democracy after decades of brutal military rule.
The White House issued the announcement during a visit with Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader, whose victory in democratic elections last year was viewed by the Obama administration as a triumph in the president’s strategy of engaging with countries the United States had long shunned.
“Recognizing the progress toward democratic transition that Myanmar has achieved, including through the election of a civilian-led government, and in an effort to support inclusive economic growth, the United States will terminate the national emergency with respect to Myanmar and will revoke the executive order-based framework of the Burma sanctions program,” the White House statement said. Myanmar is also known as Burma.
But the move is viewed with concern by leaders of some human rights groups, who worry that eliminating sanctions is premature given the slow pace of reforms in Myanmar, where the military still controls a large portion of parliamentary seats and important government ministries.
“It sends a terrible message to say you’re not going to reward a government unless they do something, and then reward them anyway,” said John Sifton, the deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “Civil society groups question whether this is the right move at the right time. Everybody’s wondering why you would do this now.”
It remained unclear exactly when the remaining sanctions would be lifted; they apply to trade in jade and precious stones, and to doing business with some of Myanmar’s military officials or their affiliates.
Obama, seated beside Suu Kyi in the Oval Office, said that, as a result of her country’s “remarkable social and political transformation,” he was “now prepared to lift sanctions that we have imposed.”
“It is the right thing to do to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards for a new way of doing business,” Obama said, adding that the sanctions would be removed “soon.”
“Congratulations on the progress that has been made,” he said. “It is not complete.”
Obama had moved in May to ease a broad array of sanctions that barred American citizens and companies from doing business with Myanmar, loosening restrictions on state-owned banks and entities.
But, at that time, he left in place an official government finding of a state of emergency related to Myanmar, calling it an “extraordinary threat.” Earlier on Wednesday, Obama sent Congress official notice that he was restoring trade benefits to Myanmar.
The decision to go a step further, and scrap the sanctions entirely, reflects Obama’s belief in using diplomacy paired with sanctions relief to prod former foreign adversaries toward greater openness. That principle was at the heart of Obama’s agreement last year with Iran, which relaxed sanctions in exchange for restraints on that country’s nuclear program, and has been the driving force behind the opening of a dialogue with Cuba.
Since taking power six months ago, Suu Kyi, herself a former political prisoner, has moved to heal ethnic conflicts that have long plagued Myanmar, including one that has left the Rohingyas, a group of about 1 million Muslims living in western Myanmar, suffering and stateless.
But other key changes have yet to be made, such as amending Myanmar’s constitution to remove the military’s control over 25 percent of parliamentary seats, its ability to dissolve the parliament in times of national emergency, and its control over the nation’s security, defense, and border ministries.
Suu Kyi said she was grateful to the United States for enacting sanctions that pressured Myanmar to restore human rights, but added that the time had come for the restrictions to be lifted. She also said she was eager to draw foreign visitors and investment to her country.
Saying her first priority was “national reconciliation and peace,” Suu Kyi also conceded that she had to do more to shift the government toward civilian rule.
“We have a constitution that is not very democratic, because it gives the military a special place in politics,” she said.
Obama administration officials have argued that freeing Myanmar from economic sanctions need not wait until the country liberalizes entirely, and that doing so will improve the chances that democracy will take hold there. It is also an important legacy issue for Obama, who said during a visit there in 2012 that it was time to open the United States’ relationship with Myanmar, despite the fact that it was not yet a “perfect democracy.”