Thu 27 Sep 2012
Filed under: Business / Trade,Inside Burma,International,News
The United States announced Wednesday that it would begin to ease a longstanding ban on imports from Myanmar, one of the last major economic sanctions on the country, because of the advances made by its military-led government in moving toward a more democratic system.
The announcement was made by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during a meeting in New York with U Thein Sein, a former general who is now president of Myanmar. He has been directing the gradual transition away from the two decades of dictatorship and isolation that had driven the country to near economic collapse and dysfunction.
“We have watched as you and your government have continued the steady process of reform,” Mrs. Clinton, who has been ensconced in meetings with world leaders gathered for the United Nations General Assembly, told Mr. Thein Sein at the Mark Hotel in Manhattan. “And we have been pleased to respond to specific steps that recognize the government’s efforts and encourage other reforms.”
Mr. Thein Sein, who was making his first visit to the United States to attend the General Assembly, responded: “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 presented Mrs. Clinton with a large envelope containing a letter to President Obama.
It was Mrs. Clinton’s third meeting with Mr. Thein Sein. The first was on her trip to Myanmar last December, and they met again at a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations in Cambodia in July.
The United States had already lifted its ban on American investment in Myanmar, and just last week it removed Mr. Thein Sein from a blacklist of individuals who faced sanctions. The pressure for further easing of sanctions also came from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar opposition leader and former political prisoner, who said during a visit to Washington last week that she favored moves toward normalization of commercial relations.
Political experts said the easing of the restriction on imports from Myanmar was significant for that country, which is mineral-rich but desperately impoverished. Formerly known as Burma, it was once prosperous and self-sufficient.
“The timing of this announcement is a big win for Thein Sein,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, the Asia Society’s vice president for global policy programs. “He will return from his first visit to the U.S. as Myanmar’s president with a major boost to his reform agenda. It’s a ‘concrete deliverable’ that will go a long way toward muffling critics and hard-liners at home.”
A senior Obama administration official said the lifting of the import ban — which has been in place for more than a decade — would require a waiver that the administration would now shape, working in consultation with Congress. That could take some months, and some prohibitions could remain in place on specific areas of concern, including businesses tied to military industries. Even so it will remove the bulk of sanctions, though the provisions will remain on the books.
“What this is intended to do is help a Burmese economy that is more than resource-based in terms of exports,” the official said, expressing hope that lifting American and European sanctions would create jobs and promote industries beyond natural gas, oil and timber.
A second administration official, asked about Myanmar’s military ties to North Korea — one of the main concerns for American officials — said that the administration was satisfied with efforts by Myanmar’s leaders to reconsider that relationship. “They understand this is a legacy of a different Burma,” this official said.
The easing of the import ban was announced against a backdrop of gradually warming American relations with Myanmar, punctuated not only by Mr. Thein Sein’s first visit but by a 17-day tour of the United States by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who became a worldwide political heroine during nearly two decades of house arrest. She has met with President Obama, received the Congressional Gold Medal and enjoyed rapturous welcomes from expatriate communities.
In a meeting with the editorial board of The New York Times earlier Wednesday, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 67, said she bore no malice toward the generals who oppressed her, and as a recently elected legislator from her party, the National League for Democracy, said she hoped to qualify as a presidential candidate one day.
“The leader of every political party must aspire to be head of state; otherwise he or she would be letting the party down,” Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said.
The daughter of the country’s independence hero, Gen. Aung San, who was assassinated when she was just 2 years old, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi rose to become Myanmar’s most popular political figure and a beacon of resistance to the military dictators who have run the country for much of her adult life. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
The ruling generals first placed her under house arrest in 1989 and kept her there for most of the next 21 years, isolated from her English-born husband and two sons, finally releasing her in 2010. Her children grew up without her, and her husband died of cancer in 1999. Nonetheless, she said, she did not feel a sense of bitterness or need for retribution.
“They didn’t treat me badly,” she said. “If I had been put in prison and tortured, perhaps I would have feelings of vengeance and hatred.”
House arrest was not unpleasant, she said, adding, “I was just simply kept in the house.”
Asked why she had not been imprisoned, like many of her colleagues, she said, “I think because I’m my father’s daughter.”