WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday lifted sanctions against Myanmar, declaring that the government there had made “substantial progress in improving human rights,” even though the country’s army is in the midst of a brutal campaign to drive out the Rohingya, a Muslim minority.
The announcement, which came on a Friday afternoon in a blandly titled email, was the final step in Mr. Obama’s efforts to transform the relationship with a once reclusive government.
The sanctions that were lifted applied to trade in jade and precious stones, and to doing business with some of Myanmar’s military officials or their affiliates. Restrictions imposed by Congress, including sanctions related to North Korea and those governing arms sales and military cooperation, will remain in place.
In September, Mr. Obama pledged to lift sanctions during a visit by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s leader, whose victory last year was viewed by the Obama administration as a triumph of the president’s strategy of engaging with countries the United States had long shunned.
But the country’s brutal suppression of the Rohingya, which now appears to be accelerating, has soured much of the satisfaction that administration officials once took in their outreach to Myanmar and in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory. That was one reason the announcement on Friday was so low-key.
Still, a White House official said conditions in Myanmar were far better than they were when sanctions were imposed in the 1990s. At that time, a repressive military government ruled the country.
Some human rights advocates said the action was premature. John Sifton, Asia policy director for Human Rights Watch, called the decision “astounding.”
“Even without the most recent violence,” he said, “the last thing the U.S. government needs to do is give up more leverage over the Burmese military.”
Recent satellite images have shown that villages have been burned to the ground. There have been reports of rape and slaughter of children, and thousands of refugees have fled across the border to Bangladesh.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has remained largely silent during the campaign, sullying her image internationally as an exemplar of democratic values and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Mr. Obama has visited Myanmar twice, and administration officials have said that his reception during his first visit was among the most effusive and powerful of his presidency. Initially, the administration had hoped that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory would improve the Rohingya’s plight.
The army began its campaign after it said armed men had killed nine police officers on Oct. 9. But instead of a targeted effort, the army has uprooted tens of thousands of impoverished civilians. Near the town of Akyab (Sittwe), south of where the military campaign is being carried out, more than 100,000 Rohingya live in internment camps.
In her few comments about the attacks, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has largely defended them. “Show me a country without human rights issues,” she said at an Oct. 12 news conference. A few weeks later in Tokyo, she said she needed “complete evidence about who has been responsible.”
The administration’s outreach to Myanmar has been linked with its opening to Cuba and its nuclear deal with Iran, agreements with once-pariah states that President-elect Donald J. Trump has suggested he may reverse. Mr. Obama has long believed that diplomacy, along with sanctions relief, can be effective in prodding closed societies to open up.
Source: Washington Post