The visit underscores Obama's foreign policy pivot toward Asia
It is unclear whether Aung San Suu Kyi will support lifting sanctions
President Barack Obama announced Wednesday he was prepared to lift sanctions on Myanmar after the country’s democratic transformation and re-entry into the United States’ good graces.
He made the announcement after meeting with Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the Oval Office, a symbolic image of his moves toward repairing broken US relationships across the globe. Myanmar was formerly known as Burma, a name the US government still uses when referring to the country.
“In part because of the progress we’ve seen over the last several months, I indicated after consulting with Daw Suu that the United States is now prepared to lift sanctions we’ve imposed upon Burma for quite some time,” Obama said, using an honorific title for the Burmese leader. “It is the right thing to do in order to ensure the people of Burma see the rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government.”
Obama didn’t specify precisely which sanctions would be lifted, but said the relief would come “soon.” He also announced the US would add Myanmar to a roster of developing countries granted special trade status, allowing duty-free import of some 5,000 products.
A senior administration official said afterward that some sanctions would remain on Myanmar, including a longstanding arms ban “in order to ensure that the military remains a partner in the democratic transition.”
But the White House said it was removing a “national emergency” designation on Myanmar that had been in place for two decades, allowing for the lifting of sanctions that had prevented broad economic investment in the country.
In his meeting with Suu Kyi, Obama had hoped to ascertain whether the time was right to remove further economic sanctions on leaders in Myanmar given its ongoing move toward democracy.
“We are very hopeful about the future,” Obama said at the meeting. “We are hopeful about building upon the friendship and relationship we have already established.”
In November, when Suu Kyi was elected to her post, the US removed certain government-run businesses and some banks from a blacklist in an attempt to jump-start trade.
The latest round of sanctions relief will not entirely loosen the screws on Myanmar’s military, which ran the country for decades and still controls important government functions like its borders and armed forces. Advisers to Suu Kyi signaled ahead of the meeting she would not support that type of sanctions relief given the military’s still-outsized role in governing her country.
“We have a constitution that is not very democratic, because it gives the military a special place in politics,” Suu Kyi said following her meeting with Obama.
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Kept under house arrest for almost 15 years, Suu Kyi is legally barred from becoming Myanmar’s president since her two sons are British citizens. Changing the country’s constitution to make her eligible for the top post would require the support of the military’s large voting bloc in parliament, which leaders have signaled is unlikely.
Despite her ineligibility, Suu Kyi is widely considered to be Myanmar’s symbolic leader. Her official title is “state counselor,” but an audience in the Oval Office with Obama leaves little doubt of her stature.
While Obama and his administration were pleased at Suu Kyi’s elevation to the role after decades as an outspoken critic of the military junta, rights groups are concerned at the condition of ethnic minorities in the country. Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been either targeted by sectarian violence or have attempted to flee on boats to Thailand and Malaysia.
“I think that Daw Suu is the first one to indicate that a lot of work remains to be done,” Obama said. “But it’s on the right track. If you had predicted that five years ago that Aung San Suu Kyi would now be here sitting as the duly elected representative of her country, many people would have been skeptical.”
“It’s a good news story in an era, in which, so often we see countries going in the opposite direction,” Obama said.
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Myanmar is mostly viewed as a success for Obama – and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state at the time he moved to thaw relations between Washington and Yangon. Those moves, taken during his first term, have led to hundreds of freed political prisoners and a fledgling peace process.
“Unity also means prosperity, because people fight over limited resources,” Suu Kyi said Wednesday. “We want everybody who is a citizen of our country to be afforded the full rights of citizenship.”