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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday lifted another set of sanctions against Myanmar to support reforms in the formerly army-ruled country, while retaining visa and investment bans against individuals accused of human rights abuses.
The Obama administration decided that a 1996 ban on granting U.S. entry visas to the former Burma's military rulers, their business partners and immediate families was no longer necessary after two years of reforms, the State Department said in a statement.
"Since 2011, the civilian-led Government of Burma has taken important steps toward significant social, political, and economic reform that demonstrate substantial progress on areas of concern," the statement said.
The statement added, however, that the termination of that visa ban did not mean that people covered by it would automatically be eligible for visas. All visitors from Myanmar would still have to apply for visas, and formerly banned officials would face scrutiny, officials said.
In a move announced simultaneously, President Barack Obama extended for another year the annual National Emergencies Act, which prohibits U.S. businesses and individuals from investing or doing business with Myanmar figures involved in repression of the democracy movement since the mid-1990s.
"The political opening is nascent, and concerns persist regarding remaining political prisoners, ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas, and the country's continued military relationship with (North Korea)," Obama wrote in a letter to Congress.
The U.S. goal in keeping some sanctions, while gradually eliminating others, is "to ensure that the democratic transition becomes irreversible," wrote Obama.
The rapid U.S. rapprochement with Myanmar since 2011, in which Washington has rewarded political reform by lifting long-standing economic sanctions and easing most of its ban on imports from the country, has come under fire from human rights groups.
Of particular concern have been sectarian clashes between Buddhists and the Muslim minority, which makes up about 5 percent of Myanmar's population, that have erupted on several occasions since a quasi-civilian government took power in March 2011 after five decades of brutal military dictatorship.
Jennifer Quigley, executive director of the advocacy group U.S. Campaign for Burma, called Obama's renewal of the National Emergencies Act for another year "the right decision" in view of the ethnic violence and forcible land confiscation for investment projects.
"The Burmese military and security forces continue to carry out serious human rights violations against ethnic minorities in Burma," she said in a statement from the group's Washington headquarters.
Quigley called for further investigation into "the Burmese government's system of impunity and security forces' role in the ongoing escalation of anti-Muslim violence and ethnic cleansing."
(Reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by Peter Cooney)