Cameron Says It’s Right To Suspend Some Sanctions On Myanmar

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron proposed suspending sanctions apart from an arms embargo against Myanmar to encourage democracy, in the first visit by a Western leader since the opposition rejoined the political system.

Cameron Seeks Suspension of Myanmar Sanctions to Spur Change

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, right, meets with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron proposed suspending sanctions apart from an arms embargo against Myanmar to encourage democracy, in the first visit by a Western leader since the opposition rejoined the political system.

It’s right to “suspend sanctions, to suspend them, not to lift them,” Cameron said at a news conference with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi today outside her residence in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon. “There is the real prospect of change. I’m very much committed to working with you and ensure your country makes those changes.”

Cameron said that he will ask the European Union to suspend all sanctions apart from the arms embargo this month. EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on April 23. He also called on the military-backed government to release more prisoners to show its commitment to political change and human rights after decades of army rule. The prime minister met Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, in the capital, Naypyidaw, before traveling to Yangon.

Suu Kyi has called for a “new era” in the Southeast Asian nation after her National League for Democracy claimed victory in 43 seats it contested in April 1 special elections. The NLD boycotted a 2010 election won by Thein Sein’s army-backed party, which along with the military still controls more than 80 percent of parliamentary seats.

‘We Should Respond’

“If we really want to see the chance of greater freedom and democracy in Burma we should respond when they take action,” Cameron said, using the country’s former name. “It must be worth taking that risk,” he said, when asked if such a move would not entrench a military that’s been in power for decades. “We know there is still much, much more that needs to be done.”

Suu Kyi said she was “delighted” by Cameron’s move.

“This will strengthen the hand of the reformers -- not just the suspension, but the fact that there is always the possibility of sanctions coming back again if the reformers are not allowed to proceed smoothly,” she said.

The premier told Thein Sein before their meeting in the presidential palace in Naypyidaw that “we need to see prisoners freed and changes to show the reform is irreversible.”

“We are very encouraged by your acknowledgement of our efforts we have made on human rights and democracy,” Thein Sein told Cameron. “The visit is significant and historical.”

Humanitarian Aid

Britain currently discourages trade with Myanmar and EU sanctions prohibit all but humanitarian assistance. The U.K. is the largest aid donor to the country, a former British colony.

Myanmar lawmakers are pushing to revamp the financial system and attract investment to revive an economy hindered by military rule and the EU and U.S. sanctions. The central bank implemented a managed float of its currency this month to improve the business climate in the country of 64 million people that borders China and India.

In 1990, the military rejected an election victory by the NLD in which the opposition party won about 80 percent of seats for a committee to draft a new constitution. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner known in Myanmar simply as “The Lady,” was detained during both that vote and the 2010 elections.

White House spokesman Jay Carney called the April 1 elections, held to fill parliamentary vacancies, an “important step.” Even so, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said April 4 that “this reform process has a long way to go. The future is neither clear nor certain.”

Investor Interest

Rich in natural gas, gold and gems, Myanmar represents one of Asia’s last untapped frontier markets, attracting investors such as Jim Rogers, the chairman of Rogers Holdings, who predicted a global commodities rally in 1999. Cambodia-based Leopard Capital plans to raise $100 million for a fund to invest in Myanmar once sanctions are lifted, according to Douglas Clayton, its founder and chief executive officer.

Myanmar’s per-capita gross domestic product amounts to $2.25 per day, about half that of Vietnam and 14 percent of neighboring Thailand’s, according to International Monetary Fund estimates. Only one in 30 people have a mobile phone and even fewer have Internet access, Nomura Holdings Inc. said in a March 14 report.

For Suu Kyi to have a shot at the presidency in 2015, she’ll need the army’s help. The constitution passed in 2008 bans her from becoming head of state because her children have British nationality. Amending that article requires support from 75 percent of lawmakers, a quarter of whom are active-duty soldiers, followed by a referendum, according to the constitution.

Cameron invited the opposition leader to visit Britain in June. “Perhaps,” she replied.