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Asia-Pacific

Europe to ease Myanmar sanctions after France's Juppé visits

media French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé meets Myanmar President Thein Sein … AFP

The European Union (EU) has agreed to start easing sanctions against Myanmar, following a visit by French Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppé and Britain’s William Hague. The thaw in relations with the military-dominated regime follows reforms that have been welcomed by democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi.

EU foreign ministers, meeting Monday, agreed to suspend visa bans against some Myanmar officials, an anonymous diplomat told the AFP news agency.

Lifting all sanctions will be "conditional on the continuation of positive action by the authorities", the source said.

Obama's 'Pacific century' a challenge to China

And EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is to visit the country in April, she announced on going into the meeting. She welcomed "the quite extraordinary changes in the last weeks and months".

During a visit a week ago, Juppé promised that sanctions would be lifted “in accordance with the progress in democratisation and liberalisation of the Burmese [Myanmar] regime” and France has tripled its aid to the country.

Some EU members wanted to put off easing sanctions until after important by-elections to be held in April. Suu Kyi is to be a candidate.

Map of Myanmar
RFI/Anthony Terrade

Myanmar’s new President Thein Sein has surprised international and local critics by introducing a number of reforms, the latest of which were the release of 200 political prisoners, including former prime minister Khin Nyunt, and a ceasefire with Karen rebels.

Even before these moves, Hillary Clinton became the first US secretary of state to visit the country for 50 years and announced some steps to improve relations with the country.

She hailed “openings” that “give us some grounds for encouragement”. She also visited Suu Kyi, as did Hague, while Juppé invited “the Lady”, as she is nicknamed, and some of her supporters to the French embassy where she was given the Légion d’honneur.

The flurry of diplomatic activity comes after US President Barack Obama in November announced a reorientation of Washington’s foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region, sparking accusations by China that its purpose was to counter Beijing’s growing standing on the world stage.

Some critics of the Myanmar government fear that Europe and the US are seizing on limited reforms to justify a policy that is really motivated by their desire to counter China’s influence, given that Beijing is Naypyidaw’s most important trading partner.

Suu Kyi herself has encouraged the thaw, while telling French media that there is still “a danger of a military coup d’état”.

“The culture of secrecy surrounding Burma's military rulers makes it especially difficult to gauge just how far they will allow the current opening to go,” comments Aung Zaw, the editor of opposition magazine Irrawaddy in an article in the US-based Foreign Policy.

But he describes Thein Sein as “the man who most believe represents the Burmese people's best hope for internal government reform, even while he remains closely connected with those who wish to remain in absolute power”.

US Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain on a visit to Yangon on Sunday declared that his country is “pleased with the progress” of Myanmar’s reforms, while calling for the “rule of law” to be implemented and “free and fair elections” to be held.

So, whether Myanmar is really changing or not, that’s certainly what France, the EU and the US are keen to believe.

Myanmar’s Asian neighbours are playing a role in the change in its relations with the rest of the world:

  • Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to visit in May and Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Maung Lwin arrived in New Delhi on Monday to discuss bilateral cooperation;
  • The Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) has pursued a long – and much-criticised - strategy of soft diplomacy and Myanmar is to chair the grouping in 2014.

 

>> Interviews with two journalists and blogger freed from prison in Myanmar by Reporters Without Borders

 

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