The European Union lifted travel restrictions on Myanmar’s top leaders after they freed political prisoners, easing some sanctions before an April by-election in which Aung San Suu Kyi will participate.
Visa bans on the country’s leadership will be suspended as a “first step” in response to “the remarkable program of political reform,” EU foreign ministers said after a meeting in Brussels yesterday. “The EU considers that the recent release of a substantial number of political prisoners marks a crucial step forward.”
The move allows President Thein Sein, two vice presidents, Cabinet members and speakers of the two houses of parliament to obtain visas to Europe, the ministers said in a statement, adding they would consider lifting other restrictions in April. The EU has banned weapons sales, frozen assets and blocked imports of minerals since first imposing sanctions in 1996.
Freeing political prisoners has been a primary demand of U.S. and European policy makers who imposed sanctions on Myanmar, which ended more than five decades of military rule with an election in 2010. Since then, Thein Sein has released dissidents, eased media restrictions and sought peace with ethnic rebels.
Hillary Clinton, who last month made the first trip to Myanmar by a secretary of state since 1955, moved to upgrade diplomatic relations after hundreds of prisoners were freed on Jan. 13. U.S. Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman and Mitch McConnell visited the country this month.
“If you had asked me during my last visit here whether I could envision the Congress lifting all sanctions against this country, I would have said that such a scenario seemed faint and distant,” McCain told reporters in Yangon, the former capital, on Jan. 22. “Today, however, it appears increasingly possible.”
The process of easing U.S. sanctions in place since 1988 should begin after an assessment of the April 1 by-election, McCain said. Various congressional acts and presidential orders ban imports, restrict money transfers, curb aid money, freeze assets and target jewelry with gemstones originating in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which boycotted the 2010 election, will contest by-elections for 48 seats in the 664-seat Parliament on April 1. She asked for the visa bans to be lifted, according to an EU official who asked to remain unidentified because the talks were private.
The EU’s foreign-policy chief, Cathy Ashton, said before the meeting that ministers have been “working closely” with Suu Kyi and that she will visit Myanmar, probably in April.
Myanmar’s “government has taken important measures towards the freeing of political prisoners and holding free elections and we should recognize that,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who visited Myanmar earlier this month, said before the meeting in Brussels yesterday.