EU nations are set to suspend sanctions against Burma for a year, opening the way to a potential trade and investment bonanza with over 800 firms, European Union diplomats told AFP Thursday.
“There is now agreement in principle” to “a suspension of all sanctions, except for the arms embargo,” said a diplomat close to the talks who asked not to be identified.
A formal announcement is expected at a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday in Luxembourg.
Despite reforms by Burma’s military leaders, EU nations long remained split over whether to remove sanctions, with Germany urging a swift lifting but hawkish former colonial power Britain keen to maintain leverage in the still army-dominated country.
But in a joint policy-making call last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged the suspension of all EU measures — though not the scrapping of the sanctions.
Suu Kyi’s endorsement of the suspension was seen as crucial.
The 12-month suspension period “gives us time to assess the sustainability of reform”, a diplomat said. The ministers are expected to also agree to include the possibility of reviewing the decision in six months.
Western nations eager to reward sweeping reforms that culminated in Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in April 1 by-elections, have already made some reciprocal gestures to encourage Burma’s government.
Once in place, the suspension opens up what many investors see as the next big frontier to European firms.
In all, the 27-nation bloc had slapped a travel ban and assets freeze on 491 people but early this year eased the measures, notably suspending visa bans against members of the government.
A total 59 firms and utilities remained targeted by an asset freeze while trade and investment restrictions were imposed on more than 800 companies, many involved in lucrative logging and mining, as well as on 52 enterprises controlled by the regime.
The bloc’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton this week said she would travel to Burma’s on April 28-30 and had invited the South-east Asian state’s foreign minister to Brussels.
“I do hope that what we are now seeing is an opportunity for this country to go forward,” she said of the country’s reforms.
“We will now enter into an active collaboration with Burma, to assist the reform process and to contribute to economic, political and social development.”
Burma’s President Thein Sein has surprised observers with a series of reforms since taking office last year, including accepting Suu Kyi and her party back into the mainstream and freeing hundreds of political prisoners.
Western sanctions remained largely intact however 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.
The EU in April last year suspended travel bans and asset freezes against 24 people, including the foreign minister. In February, it lifted a travel ban on 87 Burma officials, including Thein Sein, but kept an assets freeze against them.
A diplomat said the EU was mulling development deals with Burma as well as preferential trade agreements.
This week, the United States eased some financial restrictions on Burma to allow non-governmental groups to operate in the nation as it undertakes democratic reforms.
The Treasury Department said it would no longer restrict Americans from financial transactions in Burma if they are working for projects that “meet basic human needs” or promote democracy.