The EU this morning suspended most sanctions on Burma for one year, with only the arms embargo remaining in place. The announcement follows similar moves by the US and Australia. EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton said that the suspension is designed to support progress in Burma "so it becomes irreversible".
Clearly, this will be seen as good news by corporations and governments eager to get a slice of Burma's immense natural wealth before the Chinese – long-term allies of Burma's military dictatorship – have filled their boots. But opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi supports the measure, saying that as long as the west suspends sanctions, rather than lifts them, democracy campaigners can keep up the pressure on the regime.
Too soon, too fast?
Some will see the suspension of sanctions as a generous payback for the token democratic elections held earlier this month – in which Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) triumphed – and for the lifting of a travel ban on Aung San Suu Kyi.
The immediate beneficiaries will be more than 800 foreign companies in the logging, timber and mining sectors, which will now be allowed to invest in 50 companies close to the Burmese government. Tourism entrepreneurs are expected to pour in, eager to exploit the untouched islands and beaches of Thailand's next-door-neighbour. Visa restrictions and travel bans affecting nearly 500 government figures, some accused of serious human rights abuses, will also be lifted.
The EU's move comes on the same day that Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD colleagues should be taking their seats in the Burmese parliament. But they are all boycotting the event because they do not want to take an oath to "safeguard the constitution" – a constitution that reserves 25% of parliamentary seats for army officers.
"The timing does highlight the fact that the EU seems to want to move faster than the pace of reforms in Burma," said Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK. "Not one repressive law has been repealed, human rights abuses have increased in the past year, and hundreds of political prisoners are still in jail."
But when Aung San Suu Kyi met David Cameron in Rangoon 10 days ago, she took an optimistic line. In her view, the suspension, not lifting, of sanctions would offer the Burmese government the right mix of encouragement and threat. It would strengthen the hand of reformers, she said, because "it would make it quite clear to those who are against reform that should they try to obstruct the way of the reformers, then sanctions could come back."
Take action: Despite the "progress" hailed by western governments eager to do business in Burma, hundreds of political prisoners remain in the Burmese junta's jails. Join Burma Campaign UK's drive to free NLD member Thant Zaw, jailed for life 23 years ago.