President Barack Obama announced the U.S. is prepared to lift economic sanctions on Myanmar, following talks at the White House with the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. "The United States is now prepared to lift sanctions that we have imposed on Burma for quite some time," he said. Earlier, Obama sent a letter to Congress saying the U.S. was moving to restore trade benefits to Myanmar that had been suspended more than two decades ago because of rights abuses in the country. WATCH: Obama on Aung San Suu Kyi's outreach to ethnic minorities In an appearance at the White House with Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi called for an end to all sanctions that affect her country's economy, and said that while Myanmar has made progress in its transition to democracy, there is "so much that has to be done." She acknowledged continuing tensions among Myanmar's 135 ethnic groups, and said her administration is focused on the situation in Rakhine state, saying "communal strife is not something we can ignore." WATCH: Aung San Suu Kyi on importance of national reconciliation This was Aung San Suu Kyi's first visit to the U.S. as State Counselor and Foreign Minister – a position she assumed after her party's decisive win in last November's elections. The country's military era constitution bars her from holding the title of president because her late husband and children are foreign citizens. Sanctions Aung San Suu Kyi spent more than 20 years under house arrest in the country formerly known as Burma. Her meeting with Obama in the Oval Office is viewed as another clear indication that she is Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader. Since taking office in late March, she has not called for an end to all sanctions, which are seen as leverage to encourage the military to allow more democratic reforms. At a conference on Myanmar in Washington Tuesday, Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the White House wants to make sure that U.S. sanctions are not preventing economic investment that would help the people. "The view of the government matters a lot to us," Rhodes said. At Tuesday’s daily State Department briefing, State Department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner told reporters the lifting of sanctions is always in response to democratic progress. Toner added: “We are not ready to pull back all the sanctions yet. Some of them will remain in place; we always retain the right to continue those as long as we feel they are useful.” Toner said the U.S. is happy to welcome Aung San Suu Kyi, adding that much has changed over the past few years in Myanmar. He said human rights concerns remain, and the U.S. supports peace and steps towards a fuller and stronger democracy. Country with many problems Myanmar expert and Brookings Institution non-resident fellow Lex Rieffel told VOA: “I think it is absolutely the right thing to do to consult with Aung San Suu Kyi and make sure that we don't get out of ahead of her and don't get too far behind her. So this is a country that has so many problems. It is hard for Americans, I believe, to even imagine the number of problems, the difficulty, the complexity of the problems she faces as the leader of this country.” Rieffel said those problems include a lack of infrastructure, such as a huge shortage of electrical power needed to operate businesses. Over the past 20 years, the White House and Congress have maintained a long list of sanctions on Myanmar, including restrictions on jade and gemstones, and on businesses linked to the sales of arms and illegal drugs. Obama eased some of the sanctions in 2013, and some major U.S. companies, including Coca Cola and General Motors, ventured into Myanmar’s economy. Rapprochement Closer ties between Myanmar and the U.S. are viewed as one of Obama’s foreign policy successes, and part of his pivot to Asia. Lex Rieffel told VOA if Aung San Suu Kyi can succeed in leading the transition to democracy and helping Myanmar achieve peace after 60 years of civil war, it would be an inspiration to other countries around the world which have long and protracted conflicts.
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December 31, 2016