American officials announced late last week that they will begin to relax some of the sanctions on Myanmar. Travel bans on most senior Myanmar officials will be removed, the US will appoint an ambassador in the coming days, and American aid and NGO officials will be allowed to commence working in the country. The easing of sanctions comes just days after Myanmar took its first, tentative steps towards democracy by conducting free and fair elections for a handful of seats in parliament.According to the Financial Times, the people of Myanmar might even be sporting shiny new credit cards in the near future:
A senior administration official said that restrictions on investment in sectors such as tourism, agriculture and telecoms could be relaxed, although the mining and resources sectors would remain off-limits. Financial sanctions would also be amended to allow credit card transactions to be conducted.
Layers of often overlapping sanctions have built up over the 20 years Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta. The removal of these sanctions is likely to take considerable time and will continue to depend on further reforms. Nor could the administration remove all the sanctions even if it wanted to since most of the sanctions are in the form of laws passed by Congress and will therefore need the support of the Senate and House if they are to be unwound.Myanmar, until recently one of China’s few allies in Asia, began its overtures to the west after it concluded that total dependency on Beijing was no longer serving its interests. President Obama and his administration deserve credit for responding to Myanmar’s change of approach. By easing sanctions immediately after the elections Washington sent an unambiguous signal to Myanmar’s President U Thein Sein and his fellow reformers – both in the government and in the military – that progress brings rewards.Myanmar so far has been an easy issue for the US to handle. It fits into the kind of political morality play Americans like to observe: bad dictatorship starts to mend its evil ways in domestic politics while simultaneously doing the right thing by embracing American power. It’s harder for us when a dictatorship wants to keep the domestic status quo while strengthening political relations with us. And we have problems as well when movements pushing greater democracy at home want a more hostile relationship with the US.In Myanmar, so far, all is well. The generals are moving bit by bit toward both democracy and a pro-US foreign policy. The test will come when and if those two agendas diverge.