Obama names ambassador to Myanmar: Is US moving too slow or too fast?

Rewarding the former pariah state for progress on reforms, Obama names the first US ambassador to Myanmar in two decades and announces a further easing of sanctions.

Susan Walsh/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, accompanied by Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, speaks at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, May 17.
Susan Walsh/AP
US Ambassador to Myanmar-designate Derek Mitchell, the current special envoy to Myanmar, is seen at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, May 17.

President Obama named the first US ambassador to Myanmar in two decades and announced a further easing of economic sanctions Thursday, continuing a step-by-step policy of rewarding the former pariah state as it moves forward on political and economic reforms.

Calling the moves “the beginning of a new chapter” in relations with Myanmar, which the US still refers to as Burma, Mr. Obama said the new steps were part of the US making good on a pledge “to respond to positive developments in Burma and to clearly demonstrate America’s commitment” to a continuing transition.

The administration’s efforts to calibrate the lifting of US sanctions to the pace of reforms in Myanmar are not to everyone’s liking. Some US lawmakers say the administration should be moving faster to lift all remaining sanctions, while some human rights groups criticize the actions taken so far as too much for too little – particularly in the area of minority rights.

Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia said in a statement that, while he supports the actions taken Thursday, “I continue to believe that US policy must be more proactive.” He says Obama should lift all economic sanctions on Myanmar, noting that the European Union has already done so – with the full support of Burmese pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The White House issued the president’s statement as Myanmar's foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, met at the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Obama announced he is nominating Derek Mitchell to become the first US ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years. Mr. Mitchell has been Secretary Clinton’s special envoy on Myanmar and has played a lead role in formulating the administration’s response to Myanmar's movement toward reform over the past year.

Saying “there is far more to be done,” Obama listed remaining areas of concern for the US – including treatment of minorities, detention of political prisoners, and Myanmar's relations with North Korea – and said the US would maintain other sanctions to ensure further economic and political reform.

The new measures include the easing of a ban on US investments in Myanmar, although administration officials say a ban will continue on US investment in companies with close financial links to the country’s military.

In remarks on Thursday’s actions, Secretary Clinton said the decision to permit US investments in Myanmar carried a message for American businesses: “Invest in Burma and do it responsibly; be an agent of positive change and be a good corporate citizen; let’s all work together to create jobs, opportunity, and support reform,” she said.

Standing at Clinton’s side, Minister Wunna Maung Lwin painted a picture of improving human rights in Myanmar. He said that about 28,000 prisoners have been released in the year or so since the civilian government of President Thein Sein came to power, and he expressed confidence that further releases would occur. 

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