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EU to drop sanctions against Myanmar

BRUSSELS – The European Union will drop most sanctions against Myanmar to reward the country’s progress toward democracy, two EU diplomats said Friday.

The decision will be formally taken by the bloc’s 27 foreign ministers when they meet Monday in Luxembourg, in a bid to support the southeast Asian country’s transition, the diplomats said.

The sanctions were suspended last April for one year after the country’s military rulers handed over power to a civilian government that launched democratic changes.

The measures had targeted more than 800 companies and nearly 500 people, and also included the suspension of some development aid.

“The suspension provided a probation period, and we have now seen that we can be relatively reassured on the authorities’ commitment to pursue the path toward democracy,” said one of the diplomats.

However, an embargo on arms and equipment that can be used for internal repression will remain in place, the diplomats said. They spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the formal decision by the ministers next week.

The end of sanctions should also encourage companies from the 27-country EU – the world’s largest economy – and development organizations to strengthen their engagement in Myanmar, they said.

Myanmar, long a dictatorship, is undergoing a remarkable transition since the military handed over power in 2011.

President Thein Sein’s government has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased restrictions on the media and freedom of assembly, and brokered cease-fires for some of the country’s ethnic insurgencies.

After years of house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been elected to parliament – which is performing its role with vigor.

But the rapid pace of change has also been accompanied by some chaos, with ugly sectarian tensions in the multi-ethnic country of about 60 million resurfacing.

Human rights groups and a U.N. envoy have criticized the Myanmar government’s failure to prevent attacks mostly on minority Muslims by majority Buddhists.

Sectarian violence in western Rakhine state last year killed hundreds and drove more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims from their homes, intensifying long-running persecution of the stateless minority group.

In an ominous development, Muslim-Buddhist violence spread in March to central Myanmar, killing dozens more.