EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, right, speaks with Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, right, and Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, center, during a round table meeting of EU foreign ministers at the EU Council building in Luxembourg on Monday, April 23, 2012. EU foreign ministers meet Monday to discuss Burma and Syria. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
LUXEMBOURG (AP) — The European Union on Monday suspended its sanctions against Myanmar for a year following a wave of widely praised political reforms in the country, but will retain an embargo on arms sales, officials said.
The EU wants to support the progress made in the southeastern Asian nation "so it becomes irreversible," said foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. She will travel to Myanmar, also known as Burma, this week.
The measure were adopted by the bloc's foreign ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg, said spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic. Sanctions currently target more than 800 companies and nearly 500 people, and include the withholding of some development aid.
European and U.S. officials have pointed to significant reforms in Myanmar over the past year. These include more freedom for the media and political opposition parties, and the election to Parliament of former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose arrest originally drove the imposition of the penalties.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague highlighted the fact that sanctions were being suspended rather than lifted completely.
"We remain very concerned about conflict and human rights abuses in some ethnic areas of Burma," Hague said.
The effectiveness of U.S. and EU sanctions has been undermined by China, India and Southeast Asian nations that maintain flourishing business ties with Myanmar.
EU nations are concerned that they are lagging behind in both the political and economic fields as Myanmar increasingly opens up.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country in December on the first trip there by a U.S. secretary of state in 56 years. After Suu Kyi's party swept special elections this month, the Obama administration said it would ease restrictions on financial services and investment.
And on Saturday, Japan announced that it will forgive about 300 billion yen ($3.7 billion) of Myanmar's debt and resume development aid as a way to support the country's democratic and economic reforms.
"The EU needs to act urgently to craft a forward-looking and pro-active blueprint for future relations with the country," said Shada Islam, head of policy at Friends of Europe, an independent Brussels-based think tank.
"On the economic side, there is concern that with competition to do business with Myanmar heating up, a failure to lift sanctions could penalize European companies vis-a-vis their Asian and American rivals," she said.