Australia Eases Sanctions Against Myanmar

Published January 9, 2012 3:36PM (EST)

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Australia said Monday it is easing some restrictions on members of Myanmar's ruling elite in response to political reforms by its military-backed government.

The decision came as the party of Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi began gearing up to contest by-elections on April 1. Her National League for Democracy party has cautiously endorsed reforms instituted by President Thein Sein that include legalizing labor unions and freeing some political prisoners.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd announced the easing of sanctions during a visit to Indonesia, Australia's Foreign Affairs Department said.

"The changes to the sanctions list are an acknowledgment that Burma is taking a number of important steps toward a more open democracy and greater engagement with the region," the department said a statement, using the name for Myanmar preferred by the country's democracy movement.

Australia bars visits by senior Myanmar officials and bans financial transactions with them. Like other Western nations, it imposed the sanctions because of abuses by the previous military government.

The new policy removes former Cabinet ministers who have left politics and tourism officials from the sanctions list. The statement said an arms embargo remains in place.

"We hope positive developments, such as the increased participation of opposition parties in the political process, the release of around 220 political prisoners, and new labor laws that will legalize trade unions, will continue. In this context we will keep our approach to sanctions under review," Rudd said in the statement.

The United States and Britain, whose foreign secretary last week visited Myanmar, have not eased their sanctions, saying the release of more political prisoners is a key indicator of the progress of reforms. Between 1,000 and 2,000 political prisoners are believed to still be detained.

Thein Sein took office last year after a general election boycotted by Suu Kyi's group, which said the polls were undemocratic.

The government legally dissolved her party for falling to contest the election, but recently granted it official approval to contest the April 1 polls after it agreed to rejoin electoral politics. Suu Kyi is expected to run for a seat in parliament.

Her party won a sweeping victory in a 1990 general election, but could not take power when the military refused to allow parliament to convene.

On Monday, the party unveiled a new party logo for the upcoming polls and launched full-scale activities.

The logo uses the party flag, with a yellow fighting peacock and a white star on a red background. The fighting peacock was used by student activists during pro-democracy uprisings in 1988 and became a symbol of the democracy movement.

Suu Kyi, already the party's secretary general, took over as its chairman Monday, party spokesman Han Thar Myint said. Suu Kyi, 66, replaced 92-year-old Aung Shwe as part of a pre-campaign reorganization of the party's executive committee, which has been dominated by old and ailing senior members.

Most of the 48 seats being contested on April 1 were vacated by lawmakers who became Cabinet ministers after the first parliamentary session last January.

The military is guaranteed 110 seats in the 440-seat lower house and 56 seats in the 224-seat upper house, and the main pro-military party holds 80 percent of the remaining 498 elected seats, so even if the NLD wins all 48 seats up for grabs, it will have little power in parliament.

By Salon Staff

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