WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Wednesday the U.S. is lifting economic sanctions and restoring trade benefits to former pariah state Myanmar as he met with Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner who is now the nation’s de facto leader.
Obama hailed a “remarkable” transformation in the country also known as Burma, which spent five decades under oppressive military rule. Suu Kyi’s party swept historic elections last November, and the visit by the 71-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate, deeply respected in Washington, is a crowning occasion in the Obama administration’s support for Myanmar’s shift to democracy, which the administration views as a major foreign policy achievement.
The U.S. has eased broad economic sanctions since political reforms began five years ago and Obama has visited the country twice. But the U.S. has retained more targeted restrictions on military-owned companies and officials and associates of the former ruling junta. U.S. companies and banks have remained leery of involvement in one of Asia’s last untapped markets.
“The United States is now prepared to lift sanctions that we have imposed on Burma for quite some time,” Obama said as he sat alongside Suu Kyi in the Oval Office. He said it was “the right thing to do” to ensure Myanmar benefits from its transition. Asked by a reporter when sanctions would be lifted, Obama said “soon.”
Suu Kyi concurred it was time to remove all the sanctions that had hurt the economy. She urged Americans to come to the country and “to make profits.”
The White House also notified Congress on Wednesday it would be reinstating in November trade benefits to Myanmar because of its progress on workers’ rights. The benefits were suspended in 1989, a year after the bloody crackdown on democracy protesters by the military.
Suu Kyi last visited Washington in 2012 when she was still opposition leader. On that occasion, she was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, the legislature’s highest civilian honor, which she had been awarded in 2008 while under house arrest.