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U.S. will seek to lift ban on Myanmar imports, Clinton announces

September 26, 2012 |  5:51 pm

Myanmar President Thein Sein

NEW YORK -- The Obama administration will seek to lift the U.S. ban on imported products from Myanmar, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Wednesday at the beginning of a meeting with Myanmar President Thein Sein.

The step would wipe out the biggest remaining economic restrictions the U.S. maintains on the changing country, the latest in a series of incremental moves the U.S. has taken to reward Myanmar.

"In recognition of the continued progress toward reform and in response to requests from both the government and the opposition, the United States is taking the next step in normalizing our commercial relationship,” Clinton said.

There were no immediate details about how or when the restrictions would be lifted. Although Congress renewed the import ban in August, it also allowed for President Obama to waive the restrictions.

A senior administration official told reporters that the White House would consult Congress on how to lift the ban, including whether to end restrictions for all products at once or lift bans on categories one by one. Trade between the U.S. and Myanmar was not especially high in dollar value, the official said, and included hardwoods, gems and textiles.

The announced move would be an economic boon for Myanmar, also known as Burma, and gives its president “a major boost,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of global policy programs at the Asia Society. The U.S. action "will go a long way toward muffling critics and hard-liners at home.” 

As Myanmar has taken steps toward reform, freeing hundreds of political prisoners and allowing opposition candidates such as democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for election, the U.S. has loosened its restrictions on the long-isolated nation, easing most economic sanctions and opening up investment.

The long-standing ban on products made in Myanmar, first put in place nine years ago, dealt a major blow to the Myanmar garment industry, which once sent nearly half of its products to the U.S. More than 100 garment factories were shuttered and at least 50,000 jobs lost, the State Department reported in 2004.

Suu Kyi had urged the U.S. to drop the ban, one in a host of sanctions she had once supported, saying her country should no longer depend on such pressure to maintain its momentum toward democracy. Experts said her supportive statements, made before Thein Sein visited this week, paved the way for the sensitive move.

“It’s a little weird to support sanctions when the people you were supposedly supporting,” Suu Kyi and others in the democracy movement, “don’t support them anymore,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But other activists and ethnic minorities at odds with the government and have been loath to lose the leverage over Myanmar, which still faces serious obstacles on its road to reform.

“We still know there are bad actors that haven’t changed their behavior,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “But they’re giving these gifts to Suu Kyi and President Sein on their trips. When did lifting our sanctions turn into presents?”

The military has been accused by human rights groups of grave abuses against minorities. Suu Kyi has said hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. Ethnic violence has ravaged some parts of the country, an unresolved issue. And although Suu Kyi now holds elected office, many analysts are waiting to see what happens in three years, when bigger elections will put control of parliament up for grabs.

Clinton emphasized that Myanmar still needs to undertake many additional reforms, including releasing political prisoners and reaching peace agreements with minority groups, the senior administration official said.

Besides the import ban, the U.S. still restricts visas and bank transactions for Myanmar's generals and others implicated in human rights abuses. But Quigley argued the restrictions don’t cover everyone they should and are easily sidestepped.

As the country opens up to investment and trade, it has attracted interest because of its rich natural resources and strategic location. The Asian Development Bank estimates the Myanmar economy could expand more than 7% annually for a decade or more if reforms continue. Companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have announced their intention to return.

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-- Paul Richter in New York and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Myanmar President Thein Sein in Tokyo on April 23, 2012. Credit: Kyodo News

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