Human rights advocates warned the Obama administration Wednesday against lifting sanctions on Myanmar's military-backed government because its democratic reforms could be reversed.
"My unsolicited advice to the U.S. government on this issue would be to go slow and to retain as much leverage as you can," Frank Jannuzi, who heads Amnesty International's Washington office, said at a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation.
Washington's relationship with Myanmar has warmed over the past year, as President Thein Sein's government has released hundreds of political prisoners, legalized opposition political parties, eased restrictions on the press and enacted laws to strengthen workers' rights.
The Obama administration rewarded Myanmar by waiving import sanctions. Congress in August extended some sanctions by a year but gave President Obama the authority to waive the import sanctions.
Mr. Obama visited Myanmar in November, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the country once known as Burma.
"We do need to move slowly ... in terms of how we respond and reward the progress," said Tom Malinowski, director of Human Rights Watch's office in Washington.
"Our policy needs to be tied very, very clearly and precisely to what is happening on the ground in [Myanmar] at any given moment."
Human rights activists say U.S. sanctions were partially responsible for persuading Myanmar's leadership to adopt democratic reforms.
"Now we are in a situation where those sanctions have been suspended and they are en route to being rescinded, and so the question becomes: How does the United States use its leverage to try to ensure that there is no backsliding on the process of reform?" Mr. Jannuzi said.
"The United States must retain as much leverage as possible and appreciate the extraordinary value to a government that lacks democratic legitimacy ... of being within the U.S. embrace," he added.
"This is not a gift to be given lightly and is one that the United States should use to ensure that there is real progress on all of the unaddressed issues."
Myanmar's army is engaged in a war with ethnic Karen rebels in the country's north. In the western Rakhine state, stateless Muslim Rohingyas have been targets of communal violence.
The government has released more than 700 political prisoners over the past 18 months, but the freed prisoners can be rearrested. Thein Sein's government recently authorized the formation of a committee to review and release all remaining political prisoners.
The judiciary is flawed and the military still dominates the economy and politics.
"Reform is only being driven by a handful of people," said Jared Genser, managing director of Perseus Strategies and a former international legal counsel to Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The vast majority of the population feels nothing has changed. ... A major cultural shift is required," he added.
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