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Obama to Aung San Suu Kyi: US to lift Myanmar sanctions

Obama said sanctions would be lifted during talks with Aung San Suu Kyi at the Oval Office [Carlos Barria/Reuters]

By Al Jazeera
September 15, 2016

US president says the removal of long-standing economic sanctions will help unleash Myanmar's "enormous potential".

President Barack Obama has told Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi that US economic sanctions against her country will be lifted, and trade preferences reinstated to provide duty-free treatment for goods from the Asian nation.

Obama announced the lifting of sanctions, which he said would take place "soon" and would help unleash Myanmar's "enormous potential", during a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday at the White House.

"The United States is now prepared to lift sanctions that we have imposed on Burma for quite some time," Obama said, speaking in the Oval Office with Aung San Suu Kyi at his side.

Earlier, Obama notified the US Congress that he was reinstating preferential tariffs, known as the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), for Myanmar, which provides duty-free access for goods from poor and developing countries.

Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, was removed from GSP benefits in 1989 after the country's ruling military junta brutally crushed pro-democracy protests.

"We think that the time has now come to remove all the sanctions that hurt us economically," Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters, noting that the US Congress had supported her country by backing sanctions in the past to put pressure for democratic reforms.

Removal of long-standing sanctions against Myanmar will help foreign investment and boost the country's transition to democracy, the White House said prior to the meeting of the two leaders.

The US eased some sanctions earlier this year to support political reform, but maintained most of its economic restrictions with an eye towards penalising those it views as hampering Aung San Suu Kyi's democratically elected government.

Wednesday's meeting in Washington was the first by Aung San Suu Kyi as Myanmar's leader since her pro-democracy party won a stunning victory over the country's military rulers in elections last year.

Myanmar's military stepped back from direct control of the country in 2011 after 49 years in power, but maintains a commanding role in politics, controlling 25 percent of seats in parliament and leading three key ministries.

Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from the post of Myanmar's president under the country's military-drafted constitution, which rules her out because her sons are not Myanmar citizens. Instead, she serves as the country's de facto leader by holding the positions of foreign minister and state counsellor.

Communal violence

Aung San Suu Kyi meeting with Obama at the White House comes after a decades-long journey from political prisoner to Myanmar's national leader.

The democracy icon, however, has been criticised by human rights groups for failing to address the plight of the country's stateless Rohingya Muslim minority. About 125,000 remain confined to squalid camps on the country's western coast following violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization in the US, released a statement on Wednesday calling on Obama to maintain all current sanctions until the citizenship rights of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are respected.

"As a result of state sponsored and communal anti-Rohingya violence, displaced Muslims have been forced by the government and mobs into 'refugee' and 'resettlement' camps that they are not free to leave," the council said.

"We recognise with great respect your past work in addressing the need to halt Burma state and communal violence against the very much persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority and trust that you will continue to speak out on this immediate and pressing cause."

A group of 46 non-governmental organisations also circulated a letter they wrote to Obama on Monday expressing concern about the possible easing of sanctions while human rights abuses by the military and against Rohingya Muslims persisted in he country.

"To lift sanctions prior to tangible change for suffering communities would be a disservice to those vulnerable peoples who deserve international protection," the letter stated, according to Reuters.

Diplomatic cover

Delphine Schrank, journalist and author of the Rebel of Rangoon, said that the US has been "phasing" out sanctions, and while the business community in Myanmar and the US would like them removed entirely, there is an understanding within Aung San Suu Kyi's party and the US government that the "game is not over" yet in the transition process.

There have been significant political reforms, but "Myanmar has not yet reached that point of complete democratic achievement", Schrank told Al Jazeera.

The treatment of Rohingya Muslims also "remains the great great sticking point internationally for Myanmar", Schrank said, noting that Aung San Suu Kyi has "put her name on an initiative to resolve a lot of these problems, including the problem with the Rohingya".

Last week, a commission established by Aung San Suu Kyi and led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan travelled to Myanmar for the first time to investigate the Rohingya issue and make recommendations to the government.

"It is clear that in setting up the Annan Commission, Suu Kyi is not merely looking for some diplomatic cover, but is making Rakhine State a priority and is serious about taking steps to address the situation," Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst based in Myanmar, told Reuters news agency.

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