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Asia

Call to lift sanctions against Myanmar sparks controversy

ASEAN foreign ministers have called for sanctions against Myanmar to be lifted, given the junta's steps towards political reform. The call comes as parliament is due to meet for its first session on January 31.

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is free but there are still 2,000 political prisoners

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is free but there are still 2,000 political prisoners

The demand by Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers for the international community to lift economic sanctions against Myanmar has been led by Thailand and Indonesia. The two countries' foreign ministers told a regional meeting that democracy had returned to Myanmar.

Their call came just two months after military-ruled Myanmar held elections for a national parliament for the first time since 1990.

The release, one week later, of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest underscored efforts by the junta to have the sanctions lifted, especially those imposed by the United States, Canada and the European Union because of human rights violations.

The junta has announced a privatization plan that is supposed to boost the economy

The junta has announced a privatization plan that is supposed to boost the economy

Lifting of sanctions could boost economy

The bans on imports to the US as well as financial transactions and restrictions on foreign investment have had a negative impact on Myanmar’s garments and textiles industry that was very focused on exports to the US. Businessmen are also backing ASEAN's calls.

"We would like to see the US lift its sanctions," said Cambodia-based US businessman Douglas Clayton, a managing partner of the regional investment fund Leopard Capital.

"This would be a catalytic step towards facilitating foreign investment because at the moment multinationals are unable to deal there – they have problems if they deal there."

Rights groups warn against ignoring human rights abuses

However, rights groups have said it would be premature to ease restrictions considering over 2,000 people remain in detention in Myanmar.

They have also raised questions over the validity of the November vote, citing fraud. Military-backed parties won around 80 percent of the seats. Under a constitutional quota, 25 percent of seats are automatically allotted to the military.

Activists say the parliament, which is due to meet on January 31, will do little to end the military’s tight control over government in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The opposition thinks the elections only served to consolidate the military's domination of Myanmar

The opposition thinks the elections only served to consolidate the military's domination of Myanmar

"It's just a procedural formalization of the military's domination in Burma and that's it," said Sunai Pasuk, a representative in Thailand for Human Rights Watch.

Some even fear the start of the new session of parliament will lead to a new crackdown against pro-democracy activists, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mixed views about privatization plans

In recent days, the junta has also announced that it is pressing on with a program of privatization, viewed by analysts as a step in reforming the country’s inefficient economy.

Almost 400 state-owned businesses, buildings and infrastructure, have already been sold.

Human rights groups are also skeptical about these reforms. "We've seen a huge wave of privatization that’s transformed public assets into the personal property of the top generals and their cronies," said Debbie Stothardt, the spokeswoman for the Alternative ASEAN Network.

"It's actually concentrating ownership of the main economic opportunities of the country," she added.

But Clayton said the program was a positive step because "by spreading ownership of the economy more broadly you will have more vested interests, so there will be more impetus for further reform."

A delegation of ASEAN foreign ministers is due to travel to Myanmar to assess the new parliament as well as to encourage the military to start a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition.

Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Anne Thomas

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