By Joseph Allchin
Burma’s government is hopeful that western sanctions on the country will be soon removed in light of praise from the US and EU governments of apparent reforms underway in the country.
“They will consider lifting sanctions soon” because relations with the west have “improved in a short span of time,” political adviser Nay Zin Latt told Bloomberg.
These improvements prompted US President Barack Obama to hail the “flickers of progress” in Burma, which came after announcing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s landmark visit to the country, beginning Wednesday.
But France’s ambassador to Burma, Thierry Mathou, told DVB last week at the headquarters of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) that it was “too soon to be thinking about the removal of sanctions.”
His visit to the NLD came as the French secretary for Human Rights, Francois Zimeray, travelled to Rangoon and heard testimonies from former political prisoners.
The issue of sanctions is persistently linked to the reforms enacted since the Thein Sein administration came to power in March, with deputy labour minister U Myint Thein telling DVB last month that “we have changed; now the west should also.”
The continued incarceration of political prisoners remains one of the major obstacles for the removal of sanctions. Their number has also been debated, with the NLD claiming 591 are behind bars, and the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma putting the number at around 1,700.
Various promises have been made for another prisoner amnesty, following the October release of around 230 political prisoners, but these have yet to materialise. One lined up for earlier this month was reportedly blocked at the last minute by the 12-member National Defence and Security Council.
The government’s chief political adviser, Ko Ko Hlaing, earlier told Reuters that, “There is no concrete reason to delay the release of the political prisoners,” but also suggested that the government was waiting to see how newly-released prisoners behaved. “Some prisoners committed terrorist acts,” he said. “We are worried about this, that they may shake the boat.”
Concerns over the legitimacy of the upcoming by-elections are also prompting a wariness over lifting sanctions, with both UK Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell and Clinton calling for a free and fair vote. US officials said last week that Clinton’s visit would not presage an end to sanctions.
Mitchell had also warned that European energy companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell, shouldn’t pre-empt a removal of sanctions in entering Burma’s oil and gas sector.
But the Burmese will also take heart in the apparent US imperative of competing with China over influence of smaller nations in Southeast Asia. Burma’s “strategic importance to the United States is closely connected to concerns about rising Chinese influence,” John Ciorciari, an expert on Southeast Asia at the University of Michigan, told AFP earlier.