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US moves toward normalizing relations with Myanmar

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Wednesday announced its most significant moves yet to open relations with Myanmar, lifting the travel ban on its senior leaders and easing some sanctions that have starved the country of most American investments for more than two decades.

Only days after special elections that brought the country’s Nobel Prize-winning dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her party into office for the first time, the administration also said it would reopen a U.S. Agency for International Development office, clearing the way for an expansion of foreign assistance. It also will remove restrictions on the work of American nongovernmental organizations in areas like health, education and the environment.

The administration’s actions do not lift the sweeping array of economic sanctions in place against Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, but the announcement punctuated an extraordinary and swift warming of relations between two countries that have been estranged ever since Myanmar’s military junta threw out the results of democratic elections in 1990 won by Suu Kyi.

—Steven Lee Myers and Thomas Fuller, The New York Times

Bank of England holds
interest rates steady

LONDON — The Bank of England kept its main interest rate at a record low Thursday because of concerns about higher energy prices and the continuing economic crisis in Europe.

The bank left the interest rate unchanged at 0.5 percent and kept its bond purchasing program at 325 billion pounds ($516 billion) as expected.

Britain’s economy has shown some signs of improvement over the last two months, and the rate of consumer price increases has started to slow. But some economists warned that it was too early to say whether the trends would continue for the rest of the year.

A rise in the price of oil and a squeeze on disposable household incomes because of the government’s austerity measures remain concerns of Bank of England policymakers, concerns that they can address by keeping interest rates low and increasing the money in circulation, especially as bank lending remains tight.

—Julia Werdigier, The New York Times

Germany reaches accord with Switzerland on tax evaders

Switzerland agreed Thursday to a revised tax deal with Germany, with Switzerland to pay billions of dollars on funds hidden in its banks by German tax dodgers.

The deal was the latest step in an international charm offensive that is meant to salvage at least some of Switzerland’s famous banking secrecy.

The accord, which was tougher to reach after a deal in September was criticized by German opposition parties and European Commission officials in Brussels, provides for the assessment of a one-time charge of 21 to 41 percent of the value of secret German accounts, higher than the original agreement of 19 to 34 percent. Swiss banks that are home to such accounts would make payments to the German government.

Anyone inheriting such an account will have either to pay a 50 percent tax or disclose its existence to the German authorities. And in the future, taxes on investment income will be withheld at the standard German rate.

From the Swiss point of view of maintaining banking secrecy, account holders’ names will not be revealed to Berlin, and the Swiss authorities will be responsible for ensuring that taxes are paid on behalf of the account holder, who can remain anonymous if desired.

—David Jolly, The New York Times