US eases sanctions for Myanmar nonprofit work


WASHINGTON, AP The United States eased financial sanctions against Myanmar on Tuesday to enable private U.S.-based groups to do charity work in the impoverished country.

The announcement by the Treasury Department is the first of a series of rewards from Washington in response to the military-dominated country’s by-elections this month that were swept by the opposition party of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The changes are intended to support development and humanitarian assistance. Five decades of military rule turned what was once among the most prosperous nations in Southeast Asia into its poorest.

Treasury eased restrictions on financial transactions in support of private groups working on areas such as democracy-building, health and education, sports and religious activities.

Over the past three years, the Obama administration shifted from the long-standing U.S. policy of isolating Myanmar and has said it will “meet action with action” — gradually easing sanctions to reciprocate the government’s democratic changes.

The U.S. also plans to send a full ambassador for the first time in more than two decades, and to ease restrictions on American investment and the export of other financial services. The U.S. retains tough trade sanctions.

Other Western nations are taking similar steps.

Australia said Monday it will lift financial and travel restrictions covering more than 260 people in Myanmar, including President Thein Sein, but will keep its arms embargo and sanctions against around 130 other people, including military officials.

Next week the European Union is expected to discuss suspending its economic sanctions. Such a step by the EU would put pressure on the U.S. to do likewise, for competitive business reasons.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said the U.S. is likely to ease investment restrictions in sectors such as tourism, agriculture, telecommunications and banking. It would retain bans on sectors such as natural resources and precious stones perceived to be closely linked to the military. Oil, natural gas and timber are major money earners for the country, also known as Burma.

Lifting sanctions entirely will be contingent on government consolidation of the reforms. The military is still the dominant political force in Myanmar, and severe rights abuses still are reported in ethnic minority regions. Despite the release of hundreds of political prisoners in recent months, others remain in detention.