LUXEMBOURG (AP) -- The European Union on Monday dropped its political and economic sanctions against Myanmar to support the country's "remarkable process" of democratic reforms, while warning that the southeast Asian nation must curb recent outbursts of ethnic violence.
"The people (of Myanmar) want democracy, peace and prosperity," the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said following a meeting of the 27-nation bloc's foreign ministers in Luxembourg. "The journey has begun; we want to be part of it," she said, pledging closer cooperation with the authorities in Myanmar.
The widely expected EU decision lifts all sanctions except for the sale of arms and equipment that can be used for internal repression.
The economic sanctions were suspended last April for one year after the country's military rulers handed over power to a civilian government that launched democratic reforms. The measures had targeted more than 800 companies and nearly 500 people, also including the suspension of some development aid.
EU officials say the sanctions' permanent abolition will also encourage firms and development organizations from the bloc -- the world's largest economy -- to strengthen their ties with Myanmar.
"We know that much remains to be done, on human rights, on democracy, fighting poverty and achieving lasting peace. We don't underestimate the challenges", Ashton said.
Myanmar, long a dictatorship, is undergoing a remarkable and swift transition since the military handed over power in 2011.
President Thein Sein's government has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased restrictions on the press and freedom of assembly and brokered cease-fires for some of the nation's ethnic insurgencies. After years of house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been elected to parliament..
But the rapid pace of change has also been accompanied by some chaos, with ugly sectarian tensions in the multi-ethnic country of some 60 million resurfacing.
In a joint statement, the EU ministers therefore urged the authorities in Myanmar to address the root causes of the violence, prosecute the perpetrators, grant full access to aid organizations and seek to build "a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith society."
Human rights groups and a U.N. envoy have recently criticized the Myanmar government's failure to prevent attacks mostly on minority Muslims by majority Buddhists.
Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz
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