Myanmar is likely to shake off tough EU sanctions this month, analysts said, after a dramatic change of policy from Britain and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the wake of sweeping reforms.
Western nations eager to reward changes that culminated in Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in April 1 by-elections, have made some reciprocal gestures to encourage Myanmar’s government.
However, the call from British Prime Minister David Cameron for all EU measures to be suspended is the strongest signal yet that sanctions may be halted — although not scrapped completely as the international community looks to maintain leverage in the still army-dominated country.
Experts said the suspension is likely to be enacted by EU foreign ministers next Monday, potentially opening up what many investors see as the next big frontier market to European firms.
“Given this pre-emptive move by one of Europe’s most hardline countries, the foreign ministers’ decision looks like a fait accompli,” said Jim Della-Giacoma of the International Crisis Group, -describing the proposal as “a de facto dropping of sanctions.”
Myanmar President Thein Sein has surprised observers with a series of reforms since taking office last year, including accepting Aung San Suu Kyi and her party back into the mainstream and freeing hundreds of political prisoners. However, Western sanctions have largely been left intact as the international community balanced fears over the sustainability of the changes and a desire to bolster regime reformers who may face pressure from those wary of change.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s endorsement of the suspension — which does not include an arms embargo — is also crucial, said Gareth Price, senior research fellow in the Asia Programme at Chatham House.
“That has always been a big determinant of the UK and pretty much the wider EU position,” Price said.
He said the proposal was a “sensible middle path” between countries wanting a wholesale removal of sanctions and those striking a more cautious note.
“Everyone wants the reform process to continue and the question is how best to do that,” he said.
The 27-nation EU already lifted a travel ban on 87 Myanmar officials, including Thein Sein, in February, but kept an assets freeze against them.
Its decision later this month is likely to encompass other EU sanctions, including a ban on gems and an assets freeze on nearly 500 people and 900 entities.
However, it is still unclear how far it would be echoed in Washington, which said it would ease restrictions on investment to Myanmar and appoint an ambassador this month as a reward for reforms.
The US has indicated further loosening would be tied to the release of remaining political prisoners and a solution to long-running conflicts with ethnic rebel groups.
Della-Giacoma said that while the EU and Australian sanctions could be easily lifted, those in the US were “embedded in law” and would be difficult to shift with the tight schedule and political demands of an election year.
“We should expect more incremental moves from the US with further reforms in Myanmar being matched, but not anything too dramatic,” he said.