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(Brussels) – Recent by-elections and other progress in Burma should be matched by some positive steps from the European Union, but not the wholesale withdrawal of sanctions, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to EU foreign ministers. The EU is scheduled to meet on April 23, 2012, to discuss its common position on Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy won 43 out of 45 parliamentary seats in April 1 by-elections in Burma, representing about 5 percent of the total parliamentary seats.

“The NLD’s victory in the by-elections will make it harder for reactionary forces in Burma to pull the country backward, but it does not guarantee that Burma will move forward,” said Lotte Leicht, European Union advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU can support improvements in the human rights situation if they adopt a responsive approach to easing sanctions, not their wholesale removal.”

EU foreign ministers should consider several positive steps, including further easing of visa bans and increases in humanitarian and development assistance, Human Rights Watch said. Visa bans and asset freezes against named individuals in Burma who are not high-ranking military officials or their close associates could potentially be lifted, subject to a careful review to determine that they do not bear responsibility for abuses, while sanctions against key uniformed leaders of the armed forces are maintained.

The EU should maintain restrictive measures against sectors of the Burmese economy like gems, timber, and mining, Human Rights Watch said. These and other natural resource industries are monopolized by the military, managed in a way that fuels corruption, and have the effect of increasing the autonomy and impunity of the military vis-a-vis civilian officials. These natural resources are also concentrated in areas of the country still beset by conflict, where the military continues to commit grave human rights abuses against the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said. The arms sale ban should also remain in place.

Human Rights Watch urged the EU to remove restrictive measures over the next three years – not through a precise set of benchmarks, but in response to further positive change. This should include further releases of political prisoners, an end to abuses in ethnic conflict areas, comprehensive legal reform, ensuring rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and preparing for genuinely free and fair elections in 2015.

“The EU’s support for positive change in Burma should be long-term and sustainable.” Leicht said. “Gradually easing sanctions while increasing humanitarian assistance is the best way to pursue that.”


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