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Obama renews authority for US sanctions on Myanmar

(Photo: Reuters)

By Matthew Pennington
May 16, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has renewed for a year his authority to maintain sanctions on Myanmar, amid international alarm over the plight of Rohingya Muslims whose mass flight has caused a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia.

The White House notified Congress of the renewal on Friday, five days before the existing authority was due to expire. It said that despite significant progress on some reforms, concerns persist over conflict and human rights abuses, particularly in ethnic minority areas and Rakhine State.

Although the renewal was widely expected, it comes as thousands of the stateless Rohingya who have fled apartheid-like conditions in western Myanmar are believed to be stranded in boats abandoned in the Andaman Sea because of crackdown on human smugglers. The flight of Rohingya over the past three years is the region's largest exodus of boat people since the Vietnam War.

The U.S. is calling for a regional response to "save lives," but Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand appear unwilling to take more Rohingya.

State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the U.S. is urging governments in the region not to push back new boat arrivals. He said Secretary of State John Kerry called his Thai counterpart to discuss the possibility of Thailand providing temporary shelter to the migrants. Rathke did not disclose the Thai response.

He said the U.S. was also pressing Myanmar to "do more" to improve the humanitarian situation in Rakhine State.

"We're working on this now at high levels because of the crisis it's created," he said.

The displacement of Rohingya has been a black mark on Myanmar's historic transition from decades of military rule, a shift often touted as a U.S. foreign policy success. Myanmar regards the Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and doesn't recognize them as an ethnic group although many have lived in Myanmar for generations.

The United States eased broad economic sanctions on Myanmar in 2012 to reward its political opening but it still restricts business with some individuals and companies who it says oppose the democratic transition or have ties to North Korea.

Patrick Ventrell, a National Security Council spokesman, said the U.S. will continue to review sanctions policies as it monitors Myanmar's progress on political and economic reform.

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