U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the congressional sponsor of economic sanctions against Myanmar, said he won’t seek their extension in light of the former military regime’s shift toward democracy.
“I will not be making an effort to renew those sanctions this year, based upon consultations with the State Department,” McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told reporters at the Capitol yesterday after meeting Myanmar President Thein Sein. “We think enough progress has been made in Burma where implementation of the sanctions this year is actually not a good idea.”
Thein Sein’s moves to allow more political freedom and open Myanmar’s economy following about five decades of military rule have attracted companies including Ford Motor Co. (F), Coca-Cola Co. and Visa Inc. He sought the end of U.S. sanctions in a meeting this week with President Barack Obama, a month after the European Union lifted punitive measures.
Myanmar’s economy may grow 6.75 percent this fiscal year, led by natural gas sales and investment as the country modernizes its financial system, the International Monetary Fund said in a statement today. The country of 64 million, sandwiched between China and India, is among Asia’s poorest.
“The authorities’ ambitious reform program is bearing fruit, with macroeconomic stability and high investor interest,” Matt Davies, the IMF’s mission chief for Myanmar, said in a statement after a 15-day visit to the country.
McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor yesterday that renewing the sanctions against imports from Myanmar “would be a slap in the face to Burmese reformers and embolden those within Burma who want to slow or reverse reform.”
Congress “should be strengthening the hand of these reformers to show the fence sitters that reforms will be met with positive action by the United States,” he said. “Burmese citizens should not be made to feel that Congress will maintain sanctions no matter what they do.”
While Obama praised Myanmar’s progress after meeting with Thein Sein on May 20, he expressed “deep concern” about violence against ethnic and religious minorities and said abuse of human rights “needs to stop.” Clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya last year in a western border area killed about 180 people and displaced more than 100,000.
Last month, anti-Muslim violence in central Myanmar killed more than 40 people, displaced 20,000 others and left about 1,400 buildings destroyed, including mosques. A Myanmar court yesterday sentenced seven Muslims to prison terms over the killing of a monk in the riots. No Buddhists have been convicted yet over the violence.
Obama last year relaxed sanctions on Myanmar, which the U.S. still officially calls Burma, after Thein Sein engaged with political opponents, released dissidents and relaxed censorship following his party’s victory in a 2010 election that ended five decades of repression and direct military rule.
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters yesterday the country needs to see more changes to the political system. The constitution now bars her from becoming president after elections planned in 2015 because her children are British citizens.
Suu Kyi also rejected concerns that her international image may suffer for not advocating citizenship for Muslim Rohingya.
“It is according to the citizenship law,” she told reporters in Naypyidaw yesterday. “If you are concerned about your image, don’t do politics. You have to do what’s right for your country.”
Human-rights advocates opposed Obama’s decision to invite Thein Sein to the White House as premature. They said he has dragged his feet on promises for change and that many pledges haven’t been met, including setting up a panel to review political prisoner cases.
“The last year has seen devastating violence against minorities and a stalled reform process,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed statement. Obama must “make it clear that there are consequences if the Burmese government fails to implement its previous human rights pledges.”