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US Removes Ban on Charity Activities in Burma

A staff member from the state-run Myanmar Gems Enterprise displays a 36 carat Ruby with a price tag of half a million Euros, on display at the Gems Emporium in Rangoon. (2006 file photo)

This week the United States relaxed some long-standing economic sanctions on Burma, in hopes of encouraging additional reforms after landmark elections earlier this month.

Under rules issued Tuesday by the Treasury Department, private humanitarian, religious and other non-profit organizations will be allowed to carry out charity work in Burma.

The new rules allow U.S. citizens to invest money in and undertake projects meant to meet basic human needs in Burma, including disaster relief and assistance to refugees, displaced persons, and conflict victims. They will also allow distribution of food, clothing, medicine, and medical equipment, and provision of shelter, clean water, sanitation, and hygiene assistance.

The move will also allow Americans to work in Burma on democracy-building and good governance projects, including conflict resolution and citizen participation, and on educational activities meant to fight illiteracy and increase access to education.

U.S. funds may now be spent on non-commercial projects in Burma that would benefit the Burmese people. These include disease prevention, promotion of mother/child health, food security, conservation of endangered species, and construction and maintenance of schools, libraries, medical clinics, hospitals, and other infrastructure.

Americans can also now spend money on religious activities in Burma such as religious education, the training of missionaries, and establishment and maintenance of houses of worship.

A Treasury Department spokesman confirmed Wednesday that sanctions on commercial transactions, such as import of Burmese gemstones and other goods, are still in place.

United States

  • Apr. 17, 2012: U.S. Treasury allows U.S. based groups to do charity and humanitarian work in Burma.
  • Apr. 4, 2012: Announced sanctions will be further eased.
  • Arms embargo, bans investment in Burma and most imports.


  • Apr. 13, 2012: British Prime Minister David Cameron called for further easing of sanctions during a visit to Burma.
  • Feb. 2012: Lifted visa restrictions on some top officials.
  • Bans weapons sales, restricts exports, imports and investments.


  • Apr. 16, 2012: Lifted travel restrictions, except on senior military officers and human rights abuse suspects.
  • Imposed sanctions against members of Burma's leadership in 2007.


  • Apr. 12, 2012: Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said sanctions are under review.
  • Banned exports of arms and all non-humanitarian goods in 1988.


  • Announced it would resume full development assistance in February 2012 after nine-year freeze.

After Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma in May of 2008, killing tens of thousands of people, the U.S. temporarily eased financial sanctions against that country, to allow humanitarian agencies and individuals to offer financial assistance to the Burmese people.

Since the election of a nominally civilian government in Burma in 2010, the Obama administration in Washington has been shifting away from long-standing U.S. policy of isolating that country, gradually easing sanctions as a reward for the Burmese government's democratic changes. Washington also plans to send a full-time ambassador to Burma for the first time in more than two decades. Selected Burmese officials and members of parliament now will be allowed to travel to the United States.

After the former Burmese military government’s bloody crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests in 1988, and its refusal to honor the results of a free election in 1990, the United States imposed an arms embargo against Rangoon and a visa ban on senior government officials there.

In 1997, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting any new investment in Burma by U.S. individuals or companies.

In 2003, the U.S. Congress passed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which banned imports from Burma.

In 2007, then-President George W. Bush issued an executive order imposing financial sanctions against military government officials in Burma, their families and friends, barring them access to the U.S. financial system. The list of officials was expanded in 2008.

Also in 2008, Congress passed the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act. The law, named after the late House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos of California, bans the importation of rubies and jade from Burma into the United States.

In announcing the new easing of some sanctions against Burma, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the democratic reform process in that country still has a long way to go. She said the U.S. will continue to ease sanctions as long as the Burmese government continues making progress toward a fuller democracy.