By: Thad McBride and Corey Phelps

The situation in Myanmar continues to bear watching.  While the United States and many other Western governments have maintained economic sanctions on the country for the last ten years or more, recent steps by Myanmar’s government suggest that sanctions on the country could soon be eased or even eliminated.

In recent weeks, the government of Myanmar released more than 650 detainees, including many high-profile political activists and a former prime minister.  The release of prisoners follows a declared cease-fire with the Karen National Union, an ethnic group with a militant wing.  

This latest prisoner release follows earlier steps, including a similar large-scale release of prisoners in late 2011 and the easing of restrictions on trade unions and use of the Internet.  In response to these steps, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a highly publicized visit to the country in December 2011, the first such visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 56 years.

Secretary Clinton has urged Myanmar to unconditionally release remaining political prisoners, address concerns of ethnic minority groups, and hold free elections (currently scheduled for this April).  At the same time, the United States has agreed to exchange ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time in more than 20 years.  In addition, the United States also has taken steps to make it easier for Myanmar to secure multilateral aid from international financial institutions.

The government of Australia has gone even further than that of the United States, by lifting specific restrictions on certain nationals of Myanmar, including former political and tourism officials.  Like the U.S. government, the government of Australia has indicated that it continues to monitor the situation in Myanmar and is poised to further ease restrictions on the country, depending on additional steps the government takes to release political prisoners and to otherwise reform the government.

As long as the government of Myanmar continues to take these and other steps to reform the country, the easing or lifting of U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Myanmar seems increasingly likely.  This is not a sure thing, but the signs are certainly promising at present.  Companies with potential interests in Myanmar should be prepared to move quickly if new business and investment opportunities present themselves.