The move would allow the first significant American trade with Myanmar in decades, a step that worries human rights advocates who say the United States is moving too quickly to help a repressive country that is still far from free.
Relations between the United States and Myanmar, also known as Burma, have warmed with startling speed in the last year, after two decades of cold-war-like tensions and a raft of sanctions that still remain in effect. The election of a new president last year, U Thein Sein, set in a motion a series of political and economic reforms that included the end of the house arrest of the country’s iconic dissident, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and led to the election of her and others from her party to Parliament this year.
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have promised to respond to the developments with reciprocal steps, and the actions announced on Thursday are the most significant steps to date.
Mrs. Clinton, in announcing the changes, described the reforms in Myanmar as “irreversible,” and pledged American political, diplomatic and economic support to bring the country out of its isolation. As she appeared with the country’s foreign minister in the State Department’s Treaty Room, framed by the flags of both countries — a tableau virtually unthinkable a year ago — Mrs. Clinton underscored a drastic and historic shift in relations.
“Today we say to American business: Invest in Burma,” she said.
The White House also announced the nomination of Derek J. Mitchell to be the first American ambassador to Myanmar since 1990.
Earlier on Thursday, two senior officials said that the administration planned to extend the legal authority to impose sanctions, but at the same time would allow American corporations far greater license to make investments in a broad range of sectors. The Treasury Department office that enforces sanctions would still restrict American commerce with Myanmar’s armed forces and corporations closely affiliated with them in the country’s state-managed economy.
American companies would be required to report on their investments and ensure that they do not support forces inside Myanmar that repress political rights or participate in ethnic conflicts, both major concerns of human rights advocates.
“A big issue with Burma is it is so opaque,” a senior administration official said, referring as a matter of American policy to the country by its colonial name. “We’re trying to get at that part of the problem.”
This easing follows steps by the European Union and Australia to suspend sanctions, raising the prospect of a foreign investment boom in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest and most isolated countries. Prominent members of Congress have urged the administration to follow suit, including Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia.
The warming of relations has unusual bipartisan support, as well as the endorsement of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, who this month took her seat in Parliament.
Other voices have raised concern, though. Human Rights Watch appealed to the president to slowly ease sanctions, citing Myanmar’s weak rule of law, corruption and abusive practices, like forced labor.
“The U.S. government should not reward the Burmese government’s nascent and untested changes by allowing an unregulated business bonanza,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. “Tough rules are needed to ensure that new investments benefit the people of Burma and don’t fuel human rights abuses and corruption, or end up strengthening the military’s control over civilian authorities.”