Sep 27, 2012

US to lift Myanmar goods import ban

New York: Washington is to ease a ban on imports from Myanmar, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, lifting its last major trade embargo in a move swiftly welcomed in the former pariah state on Thursday.

Clinton told Myanmar President Thein Sein in New York that the US “is taking the next step in normalising our commercial relationship”, to recognise the reforms made as the Southeast Asian nation emerges from decades of army rule.

“We will begin the process of easing restrictions on imports of Burmese goods into the United States,” she told the Myanmar leader, a former general who took the helm of a reformist quasi-civilian regime last year.

“We have watched as you and your government have continued the steady process of reform and we have been pleased to respond with specific steps which recognise the government’s efforts and encourage further reform,” she said.

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The move, which will have to be carried out in conjunction with Congress, comes just over a week after democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi started a historic visit to the United States by calling for an end to sanctions.

Her National League for Democracy party hailed the announcement as a positive long-term step for Myanmar, also known as Burma, and said it came after negotiations involving Clinton, Suu Kyi and Thein Sein.

“We welcome the lifting of import bans, although of course the people cannot get an immediate benefit from it,” said Ohn Kyaing, of the NLD, in Yangon on Thursday. “But we do think it will be good in the long term.”

The pace of reform, including the government’s decision to welcome the Nobel laureate and her party into mainstream politics and the release of hundreds of jailed dissidents, has provoked a rapid thawing in relations with the West.

It has also seen the removal of most international sanctions.

Myanmar, left impoverished by the junta’s economic mismanagement, is now seen as the next major frontier economy in the region, with its strategic location between China and India and abundant natural resources.

The US import ban was imposed under a 2003 act by Congress, although there was already little trade at the time, with the United States mostly importing some hardwoods, gems, and garments.

US officials will now have to examine each sector with Congress and decide how best to go about easing the sanctions.

Myat Thin Aung, vice chairman of Yoma bank and a member of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told AFP in Yangon that the textiles industry was one sector most likely to benefit from the US move.

He said there would be “more job opportunities for garment factories workers” after the lifting of restrictions, predicting an uptick in business for a clothing industry that was once heavily reliant on the American market.

“We welcome the lifting of the US import ban as it can benefit the country,” he said.

Clinton’s talks with Thein Sein, which also touched on issues including Myanmar’s reconciliation process and the landmines that litter the country, came ahead of the Myanmar leader’s address to the UN General Assembly on Thursday.

“The people of Myanmar are very pleased with the easing of economic sanctions by the United States. We are very grateful for the actions of the United States,” he told Clinton.

His landmark visit comes after Washington lifted sanctions against him that were put in place because of his previous senior position in the former junta.

Suu Kyi met Thein Sein at his New York hotel on Tuesday, according to Myanmar state media.

A senior State Department official said the talks between Clinton and Thein Sein were very “warm,” adding it was “clear that Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi are a very effective team.”

Increasingly cordial relations between the US and Myanmar saw Washington lift sanctions on American investment in Myanmar in July, enabling a major US trade delegation to visit the country just a few days later.

Global corporate giants from Coca-Cola to General Electric have already begun to vie for a share of an expected economic boom in the country.

But many firms are awaiting the outcome of an eagerly-anticipated foreign investment bill, which was sent back to parliament for amendment by the Myanmar leader this week.

The United States last week lifted 2007 sanctions on the Myanmar president and lower house parliament speaker Shwe Mann, removing them from the US Treasury’s list of “Specially Designated Nationals.”