(Reuters) - The United States has eased some restrictions on Myanmar to support ongoing work by International Financial Institutions (IFIs) like the Asian Development Bank carrying out economic assessments and technical assistance to its new civilian government.
The partial waiver was signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday in the latest sign of a step-up in U.S. engagement with an impoverished country squeezed by Western sanctions and run for 49 years by military juntas until 10 months ago.
The nominally civilian government has since overseen a series of surprise reforms that have thrust into the spotlight the issue of Western sanctions imposed on past regimes for their human right violations.
The move in support of IFI involvement is seen as small but symbolic, a quid-pro-quo to acknowledge the reforms while still maintaining tight sanctions that were first introduced in 1988. Officials in Washington say the process of ending the embargoes on the former Burma would be complex and lengthy.
"Assessments by international financial institutions will provide critical means to gain a greater understanding of Burma's economic situation, particularly its severe poverty alleviation needs and capacity gaps," the state department said in a statement.
The International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have been sending technical support teams to Myanmar in the past few months to compile assessments of the country's long-stagnant and murky economy and give advice on ways to unify its complex official and unofficial currency exchange systems.
Those missions come as the government continues to introduce reforms not seen in decades. They include the release of more than 600 political prisoners in a series of amnesties since last May, ceasefire talks with ethnic rebel groups and the loosening of tight media censorship and bans on protests.
Clinton welcomed the changes so far during a landmark visit in December and pledged to forge closer ties with Myanmar. Washington has since agreed to upgrade diplomatic relations by exchanging full ambassadors after a two-decade absence.
It also comes after the European Union temporarily suspended travel bans on top government officials and the president.
U.S. sanctions preclude U.S. aid and rule out financial help from IFIs such as the World Bank, in which the United States is a big shareholder and has veto rights.
The World Bank and ADB ceased operations in the country in the mid-1980s and are still owed arrears, which have to be repaid before they can come back. Any aid would require the government to respect governance standards that have eluded its leaders for decades, including budget transparency.
(Reporting by Martin Petty in Bangkok; Editing by Ed Lane)