WASHINGTON — The White House is lifting economic sanctions and restoring trade benefits to former pariah state Myanmar, officials said Wednesday, as Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner and now the nation’s de facto leader, met with President Barack Obama.
Suu Kyi’s party swept historic elections last November, and the visit by the 71-year-old Nobel peace laureate, deeply respected in Washington, is a crowning occasion in the Obama administration’s support for Myanmar’s shift to democracy, which the administration views as a major foreign policy achievement.
The U.S. has eased broad economic sanctions since political reforms began five years ago but has retained more targeted restrictions on military-owned companies and dozens of officials and associates of the former ruling junta. U.S. companies and banks have remained leery of involvement in one of Asia’s last untapped markets.
Human rights groups, however, say there are powerful reasons for retaining sanctions. Military abuses continue in ethnic minority regions. Rohingya Muslims remain displaced by sectarian violence and denied citizenship.
Congressional aides said that Suu Kyi had requested the removal of the national emergency with respect to Myanmar — the executive order authorizing sanctions that has been renewed annually by U.S. presidents for two decades.
A U.S. official says that by terminating the emergency, 111 Myanmar individuals and companies will be dropped from a Treasury blacklist and restrictions will be lifted on new investment with the military and on the imports of rubies and jade.
The official and aides spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter before it was expected to be announced after Obama’s meeting with Suu Kyi.
The move does not remove all economic sanctions. Penalties intended to block the drug trade and to bar military trade with North Korea would still apply, as would a visa ban barring some former and current members of the military from travelling to the U.S.
The move does not normalize relations with Myanmar’s military. The U.S. does not intend to provide weapons, military equipment or other support for the military, the official said.
The White House notified Congress on Wednesday it was offering preferential trade benefits to Myanmar that were suspended in 1989, a year after the bloody crackdown on democracy protesters by the military. The U.S. had cited Myanmar’s refusal to recognize workers’ rights.
Suu Kyi’s visit to Washington signals her transformation from long-imprisoned heroine of Myanmar’s democracy struggle to a national leader focused on economic growth.
She last visited Washington in 2012 when she was still opposition leader. On that occasion, she was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, the legislature’s highest civilian honour, which she had been awarded in 2008 while under house arrest.
Now she meets Obama as the de facto leader of the country with the title of state counsellor although a junta-era constitution still enshrines the military’s role in politics and bars her from the presidency. When Obama last visited Myanmar in November 2014, he voiced support for constitutional reform.