US waives visa ban for Myanmar official visits

WASHINGTON (AP) ? The Obama administration took another step Wednesday in unraveling tough U.S. sanctions against Myanmar by waiving a visa ban to promote engagement with its reformist government.

The White House announced the step ahead of a visit next month to New York by Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, to the U.N. General Assembly.

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said it is not a blanket lifting of the ban, and the U.S. still will screen Myanmar officials for evidence of complicity in gross human rights abuses.

President Barack Obama delegated authority to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to waive the ban for “certain individuals.” Under 2008 legislation, the ban covers officials of the former ruling junta, the military and those who lend it financial support. Immediate family members of such individuals also are banned.

Hayden said that by engaging Thein Sein and select Myanmar ministers and deputy ministers, “We can build trust, create opportunities to press for further reform, and give key reformers a better understanding of democracy and U.S. policy.”

In recent months, the U.S. has restored full diplomatic relations and suspended investment sanctions to reward the country also known as Burma for shifting from five decades of authoritarian rule. It already has allowed some U.S. visits by officials.

The U.S., however, has left in place an import ban, and it remains concerned over political prisoners, ethnic conflict and Myanmar’s ties with North Korea.

Thein Sein’s upcoming visit to the U.S. will coincide with one by democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who will meet administration and congressional leaders and receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the legislature’s highest civilian honor.

In Myanmar’s latest effort to ease state control, it announced Tuesday that it is cutting about a third of the names from a blacklist that has restricted more than 6,000 people ? both foreigners and Burmese ? from traveling to and from the country.

The U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based activist group, complained Wednesday that Myanmar authorities have yet to grant passports to 15 veteran student activist leaders and many former political prisoners.

“Their application for passports is delayed while many government officials, ruling party members and cronies are freely traveling all over the world, including the U.S. and Europe,” said the group’s executive director, Aung Din.