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Lifting sanctions could revive Myanmar industry

YANGON, Myanmar – Looking across a sea of young workers perched behind rows of buzzing sewing machines, factory owner Myint Soe has one main hope for Monday’s suspension of European sanctions on Myanmar – the restoration of some of the 80,000 garment industry jobs lost here during the last 10 years.

A complex web of Western trade embargoes imposed on the Southeast Asian country since the late 1990s was meant to punish its iron-fisted former military rulers for years of misrule and human rights abuses. But the poorest unskilled laborers suffered far more than the regime, and many lost crucial jobs that could sustain entire families.

On Monday, the European Union confirmed it was suspending most of its sanctions to reward Myanmar’s recent wave of political changes. The announcement is the biggest rollback yet, and many here are hoping rekindled trade ties with the West will yield badly needed growth.

“For us, it’s simple. This means new job opportunities for our people,” said Myint Soe, who also chairs Myanmar’s Garment Manufacturers Association. “We’re hoping for new contracts, new orders ... we’re hoping to open more factories.”

Sanctions on Myanmar ostracized the country’s former army rulers and drastically diminished lucrative investment and trade with the United States and Europe. Bans on international financial transactions were so strict that even today, top international hotels in Yangon can only accept cash, not credit cards.

In recent months, though, the West has begun rewarding Myanmar’s new government for its widely praised progress toward democratic rule, including freeing political prisoners and holding April 1 by-elections that were deemed free and fair – and were overwhelmingly won by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.

The process has not been glitch-free. Suu Kyi’s party refused to take its new seats in the parliament Monday because part of the oath of office pledges to “safeguard” the constitution, which they want to change.

They would prefer it said “respect” the constitution. President Thein Sein said he was open to the possibility of revising the wording, and members of Suu Kyi’s party said they believe the matter will be resolved soon.

So far, Washington has eased travel bans against relatives of former junta leaders, and relaxation of some financial restrictions has enabled U.S.-based groups to do charity work in the impoverished country. The U.S. may also ease restrictions on American investment and financial services.

In Luxembourg on Monday, the EU announced the suspension of most sanctions except an arms embargo against Myanmar for six months to a year while it assesses the country’s progress. The restrictions currently suspend some development aid and target more than 800 companies and nearly 500 people.

“It is true that Myanmar is making progress in terms of elections, in terms of opening their system and we’re encouraging that,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Copenhagen. “We have to keep our efforts to support all the reforms in Myanmar for Myanmar to live in freedom.”

Alfredo Perdiguero, a senior economist at the Asian Development Bank, said the EU move would spur investment and trade and create new markets. But he said its overall effect would be limited because Myanmar has already dramatically boosted economic ties with its neighbors, including China and Thailand.

Still, he said the EU’s suspension will have “a huge psychological impact” on the country.

Jan M. Olsen of the Associated Press in Copenhagen contributed to this report.