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Experts Ask US to Use Caution in Relaxing Sanctions Against Burma

Cindy Saine

A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee has held a hearing on U.S. policy towards Burma, at a time when a group of human rights organizations has questioned the decision by President Barack Obama's administration to ease several sanctions against Burma.

The United States eased an investment ban, some travel restrictions and other sanctions in early April, after Burma held by-elections in which pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's political party won seats.  The chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Republican Donald Manzullo, expressed cautious optimism about the changes in Burma.

"It is my sincere hope that these actions in Burma are the beginning of real, meaningful political reconciliation.  However, let us not lose sight of the reality that Burma has endured 50 years of military dictatorship, and those in power will not give up this power overnight," Manzullo said.

Several lawmakers asked the witnesses at the hearing if they believed that the political reforms in Burma are real, lasting and substantial, and what they believe motivated Burma's current military-backed government to take such dramatic steps.  Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said that 50 years ago, Burma was the richest, most dynamic and most promising country in East Asia.  Campbell said now, Burma is one of the most backward countries in the region, and in the world, and he believes some of the country's leaders realize this.

"I think a big motivation is to bring this country into the 21st century, and to move away from a history that has been clouded by violence, repression and a lack of opportunity," Campbell said.

The European Union has gone further than the United States, announcing Monday that it will suspend almost all sanctions against Burma except for an arms embargo.  But former congressman Tom Andrews, now president of the group, "United to End Genocide," cautioned that the Burmese government could still undo any positive changes.  Andrews was in Burma after the elections, and he said that away from the capital, there is still military violence against innocent civilians.

"Economic pressure has helped to push forward progress in Burma.  Giving away rewards too quickly, in exchange for too little, leave the United States and the international community without leverage," Andrews said.

Andrews said he understands very well the desire on the part of the international community to declare Burma a success story.  But he said the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration must choose their steps wisely in the months to come, until all government atrocities against the people of Burma cease.

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