US to ease sanctions against Burma

The United States has announced it will further ease sanctions against Burma.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said some travel and financial restrictions would be relaxed, with Burmese leaders allowed to visit the US.

European Union leaders had said earlier on Wednesday that they would consider taking similar steps.

The news follows by-elections in Burma on Sunday in which pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party secured a landslide win.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) took 43 out of 45 seats up for grabs in the polls, which were generally deemed to be free and fair.

Mrs Clinton, who paid a visit to Burma last year, praised President Thein Sein's "leadership and courage".

"We fully recognise and embrace the progress that has taken place and we will continue our policy of engagement," she said.

Under the moves, the US will name an ambassador to Burma and establish an office for its Agency for International Development in the country.

The US would also begin "targeted easing" of the ban on US financial services and investment in Burma, she said without giving further details.

Administration officials said agriculture, tourism, telecommunications and banking would be among the economic sectors to be considered for the relaxation of sanctions.

Mrs Clinton said that sanctions would remain in place "on individuals and institutions that remain on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts".

The US eased some sanctions on Burma in February.

Political prisoners

The US move came hours after Asian leaders meeting for a regional summit issued a formal call for sanctions against Burma to be lifted immediately to help the country's political and economic development.

Speaking in London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said EU members would probably be willing to lift some of their sanctions on Burma.

"That does not mean an instant and complete opening up of trade with Burma," he added.

Mr Hague said he would keep up pressure on Burma to free political prisoners.

The Chinese foreign ministry welcomed the Western moves to relax sanctions on Burma, and called for all restrictions to be lifted.

China has long been Burma's closest partner and biggest investor.

But human rights campaigners warned the West against being too quick to lift sanctions.

"To lift the sanctions immediately and totally would be premature," a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, Sunai Phasuk, told the BBC's World Today programme.

"We need to maintain leverage, we need to maintain pressure and use these to negotiate for further changes to guarantee that there will be no reversal of positive development in Burma."

Although the NLD won a landslide victory in Sunday's polls, the result barely makes a dent in the ruling military's dominance of parliament.

The army and its proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) still hold about 80% of seats in parliament after elections in November 2010 that were boycotted by the NLD because of election laws they said were unfair.

Correspondents say a key test of the government's commitment to reform lies ahead, as the NLD enters parliament.

The NLD won elections in 1990 but was not allowed to take power. Aung San Suu Kyi spent years under house arrest ordered by the ruling military junta.

But a series of reforms has been enacted in Burma since November 2010 after the polls which saw military rule ended and a military-backed civilian government elected to office.