WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration will send an ambassador to Myanmar and begin easing financial, foreign aid and travel sanctions in recognition of the long-isolated country’s first free and fair parliamentary elections, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.
Clinton called Sunday’s historic elections, which will seat opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other pro-reform candidates for the first time, “an important step in the country’s transformation.”
The unraveling of the first of many U.S. sanctions will come slowly and could be reversed if political reforms don't continue, U.S. officials said. Yet the moves represent a substantial gesture from the Obama administration, which has sought to coax change from Myanmar’s autocratic regime for the last three years.
The administration is consulting with Congress and the Myanmar government but expects to nominate an ambassador soon, officials said. Derek Mitchell, who is now special envoy for Myanmar, is the likely choice, said a congressional aide. Washington hasn’t posted an ambassador to Myanmar, previously known as Burma, since it downgraded relations in 1988.
The administration will selectively ease restrictions on American investment in the country and on the services that can be provided by U.S. financial services firms, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. goal will be to help ordinary residents, rather than the military-dominated regime, which controls much of Myanmar’s valuable natural resources, officials said. Instead of permitting investment in the regime-controlled gem or timber businesses, an official said, the administration might, for example, allow investment in agriculture, tourism and telecommunications.
But the official said U.S. firms are likely to be cautious because Myanmar is a difficult environment for foreign investors.
The administration plans to open the way for nonprofit organizations to expand activities in Myanmar. It will also selectively ease travel restrictions on Myanmar officials to allow pro-reform officials to visit the United States.
The administration will also expand the presence of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which helps coordinate and run U.S. foreign aid projects, by opening a regional office in the country.
While U.S. officials praised Myanmar’s president, they stressed that the regime needs to enact more reforms, including full release of political prisoners, severing the military relationship with North Korea and ending abuses against ethnic minorities.
-- Paul Richter
Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discusses Myanmar at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday. Credit: Michael Reynolds / European Pressphoto Agency