The European Union has lifted the last of its trade, economic and individual sanctions against Myanmar in response to its political reform programme.
The sanctions were temporarily lifted last year, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi agreed Myanmar’s progress merited the move being made permanent.
An EU foreign ministers’ meeting said an arms embargo would stay in place.
It warned Myanmar needed to address “significant challenges”, particular regarding its minority Muslims.
Human rights groups say the lifting of sanctions reduces the leverage the EU has on Myanmar, with Human Rights Watch’s Asia head Phil Robertson describing the move as “premature and regrettable”.
It came shortly after the BBC obtained police video showing officers standing by while Buddhist rioters attacked minority Muslims in the Burmese town of Meiktila. It was filmed last month, when at least 43 people were killed in Meiktila.
‘It is time’
An EU statement, approved without a vote and issued at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg, said: “In response to the changes that has taken place and in the expectation that they will continue, the Council (of ministers) has decided to lift all sanctions with the exception of the embargo on arms.”
There was unanimous support for lifting all the sanctions on Myanmar except the arms embargo.
The feeling is that – while things may not be perfect – it would send the wrong signal to keep sanctions in place at a time of huge change.
The UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said Myanmar’s problems are by no means over but the progress that has been made is substantial enough and serious enough for the sanctions decision to be approved. He said he’d consulted the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and she had agreed.
Sanctions are one of the main tools of EU foreign policy and there is never a perfect time to impose them or to lift them again. Critics argue that the EU is too reliant on sanctions as a means of putting pressure on other countries.
But despite the evidence of continuing violence directed against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, it would have been a big surprise if this decision had gone any other way.
The decision came in response to political reforms implemented by President Thein Sein, who came to power after elections in November 2010. His administration has freed many political prisoners and relaxed censorship.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Myanmar’s political progress was substantial enough and serious enough for the temporary lifting of sanctions to be made permanent.
But he told the BBC: “The work of the EU in Myanmar is not remotely finished. It is important to continue working on improving human rights, on improving the humanitarian situation, in helping the Burmese to address issues of ethnic violence, particularly attacks on Muslim communities.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, who for years supported the sanctions against the country’s military rulers, backed the EU’s decision, telling the BBC the democracy movement could not depend on sanctions forever.
“It is time we let these sanctions go,” she said. “I don’t want to rely on external factors forever to bring about national reconciliation which is the key to progress in our country.”
Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for many years, leads a pro-democracy opposition which has a small presence in parliament.
Violence between Buddhists and Muslims erupted in another part of Myanmar, Rakhine state, last year following the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in May.
Much of the footage was shot by the Burmese police. This report contains images of violence which you may find upsetting
Clashes in June and October resulted in the deaths of about 200 people. Thousands of people, mainly members of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, fled their homes and remain displaced.
On Monday, the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) presented a report containing what it said was clear evidence of government complicity in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against Muslims in Rakhine state.
It said security forces had either stood aside or joined in when mobs attacked Muslim communities in nine townships, razing villages and killing residents.
It said HRW had discovered four mass grave sites in Rakhine state, which it said security forces had used to destroy evidence of the crimes.
However, the allegations were rejected by Win Myaing, a government spokesman for Rakhine state, AP news agency reported.
HRW investigators didn’t “understand the situation on the ground,” he said, adding that the government had no prior knowledge of the impending attacks, and had deployed forces to quell the unrest.