US extends Myanmar sanctions authority for 1 year

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration extended Thursday by one year targeted U.S. sanctions against Myanmar to prevent backsliding on democratic reforms.

But to sweeten the pill, the administration eased some of the U.S. visa restrictions imposed against Myanmar’s former military regime in recognition of the nation’s dramatic shift from authoritarian rule.

The actions come as expectation mounts that Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein will visit the White House this month. It would be the first such visit by a Myanmar leader since 1966.

Congressional staffers and a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the possible event, told The Associated Press such plans were in the works. President Barack Obama visited the country also known as Burma in November.

The administration has yet to announce a visit by Myanmar’s leader, which could stir controversy because of an explosion of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state in recent months that has spread to central Myanmar. The attacks have left hundreds dead and more than 100,000 displaced. Most of the victims have been minority Muslims.

While there’s still broad bipartisan backing in Congress for the administration’s efforts to support and strengthen the hand of Myanmar reformers like Thein Sein, the unrest, and Myanmar authorities failure to prevent it, has stirred concern in some quarters about the human rights situation in the country and lifting restrictions too quickly.

Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley, D-NY, said he was still waiting to hear details of Thursday’s moves, but urged the administration to stick to its policy of “action for action.”

Last year, the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations and, using a presidential waiver, suspended broad trade and investment sanctions. That followed the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the release and election to parliament of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who visited the U.S. in September.

The administration, however, retained targeted restrictions against some officials and cronies of the former regime and the option of re-imposing the broader sanctions if need be. Those restrictions were extended Thursday.

While human rights groups say Washington is being too accommodating to Myanmar, where the military is still accused of serious abuses in ethnic regions, the European Union has moved even faster to roll back restrictions, paving the way for virtually unimpeded economic ties in one of Asia’s last unexplored markets.

The 27-nation bloc last week announced it was lifting sanctions — previously only suspended — to support the country’s “remarkable process” toward democracy, even as it warned that the Southeast Asian nation must curb the recent outbursts of ethnic violence. Like the U.S., the EU retains an embargo on arms sales to Myanmar.

The Obama administration is keen to laud reforms by Thein Sein’s government but restated Thursday its demand that it unconditionally release the remaining political prisoners, sever all military ties with North Korea and end violence that has resurfaced in areas such as Rakhine state.

The administration terminated a 1996 visa ban but narrower prohibitions remain in place under other legislation, specifically forbidding travel by those who impede reforms and are implicated in rights abuses or military trade with North Korea.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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