BANGKOK – The increasingly enthusiastic love affair between Myanmar and the West is about to heat up further with the European Union's expected announcement that it is easing sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation. But not everyone is caught up in the euphoria.
Many human rights groups are urging the West to move slowly as it re-engages with Myanmar, saying the country's partial return to democracy is not cause for celebration.
Myanmar's elected rulers today are the same men who just two years ago led a military government condemned as tyrannical by much of the world for jailing more than 2,000 political prisoners, conducting brutal counterinsurgency wars against ethnic minorities and failing to hand over power to a democratically elected government.
The United States and the European Union ostracized the junta with sanctions, barring much investment, blocking international financial transactions and rejecting imports from Myanmar — all of which served to stunt economic development. A dodgy 2010 election giving the army and its allies about 85 percent of the seats in parliament promised more of the same.
But an unexpected reform campaign started last year by President Thein Sein — formerly the junta's prime minister — signaled a shift in the wind. It became a hurricane of change when the long-embattled pro-democracy party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi endorsed Thein Sein's reform campaign.
When Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats at stake in by-elections this month, the shift toward democracy seemed confirmed. Her party had won a 1990 general election, only to have the military refuse to hand over power, and boycotted the 2010 polls as unfair and undemocratic.
In return for actions such as freeing many political prisoners and engaging with Suu Kyi's movement, minor restrictions by the West against Myanmar — among them, travel bans on some relatives of former junta leaders — have already been lifted. A return to economic normalcy, after all, is in the interest not only of Myanmar's government, but also Western companies, shut out of the country's underdeveloped market for so many years.
On Monday, the biggest rollback yet will take place, when European Union foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg are expected to temporarily lift most sanctions against Myanmar, which is also called Burma. The United States is under pressure to follow suit. Norway last Sunday decided to remove all limits on foreign aid, financing and visas.
"We're doing this to send a positive signal to those behind the reforms of the last year," Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told reporters. "The changes we've seen in the country during this period are more than anyone could expect."
The EU is expected to suspend most sanctions against Myanmar for a year, with the possibility of a review in six months. The sanctions currently target more than 800 companies and nearly 500 people, and also include the suspension of some development aid.
However, queasiness over a continuing offensive by Myanmar's military against ethnic Kachin rebels in the north ensures that embargoes on arms and equipment that can be used for internal repression will remain in place.
The Kachins' plight — played out in an area in which access by independent observers is difficult and discouraged — is a major concern of those urging a go-slow policy on lifting sanctions.
This past week, the U.S.-based activist organization United to End Genocide released a report as part of a corporate responsibility project warning that rushing to invest with Myanmar might only make the country's problems worse.
The group said its president, Tom Andrews, had spent the day of the April 1 by-elections in Kachin state, and quoted him as saying, "There is no evidence of reform for many desperate people in Burma."
"In Kachin state, the ethnic minorities saw bullets, not ballots, on election day. Tens of thousands of people have already been displaced, and now the Burmese army is actively increasing its troop presence," he said.
Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, a coalition of pro-democracy activists based in several Asian countries, has urged the international community to act "step by step," but says Washington is the key player that Myanmar's government wants on its side.
"That's leverage the U.S. government needs to use effectively and smartly," she told The Associated Press.
"Why did sanctions get into place in the first place? Because of human rights violations," she said. "If the international community is reviewing its sanctions policy, the concerns about the behavior of the Burmese army and ongoing violations can't just be sidelined."
Anna Roberts, executive director of the pro-democracy lobbying group Burma Campaign UK, said the EU's suspending sanctions, in lieu of lifting them, "keeps the pressure on the Burmese government to continue reforms, while also making a strong positive gesture that genuine reforms will be rewarded."
"For the threat of reimposition of sanctions to be credible, the EU must set clear timelines and benchmarks," she said in a statement earlier this month. "We know from experience that the Burmese government is expert at delaying tactics. We also know the EU can tend to be slow and indecisive, looking for reasons to delay action."
British Prime Minister David Cameron — who met with Suu Kyi in Myanmar earlier this month — said he is cognizant of the hazards.
While the "regime is making some steps toward greater freedom and democracy, we should be extremely cautious and extremely careful," Cameron told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
"We want to see the further release of political prisoners, we want to see the resolution of ethnic conflicts and we want to see this democratization process continue," he said.
But countervailing pressure to ease sanctions is strong.
Democratic Sen. Jim Webb told The Associated Press on Thursday that it is important to support President Thein Sein's "bold leap" in relaxing decades of authoritarian rule.
After the by-election success of Suu Kyi's party, the Obama administration said it would ease restrictions on financial services and investment. But the tough U.S. sanctions also bar imports from Myanmar into the United States.
"In all of these situations, there's a moment in time you have to take advantage of," said Webb, who visited Myanmar this month. "We should have some protections in there, but we should move forward on trade."
He said it is important to create incentives for further reform because conservative elements linked to the former government are still nervous about the changes.
"You could go too slow and also encourage negative reactions," he said.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.