The United States on Wednesday announced the lifting of a longstanding U.S. ban on imports from Burma in another move to reward the country for embracing political and economic reforms.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the announcement when she met Burma’s President Thein Sein for landmark talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Thein Sein had met late Tuesday, also in New York, with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had called for further U.S. easing of sanctions as she held talks with U.S. President Barack Obama last week at the White House.
In an immediate response to Clinton's announcement, Thein Sein said the Burmese people were "very pleased" with the easing of economic sanctions and "very grateful" for the U.S. action.
"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 told Thein Sein.
"We will begin the process of easing restrictions on imports of Burmese goods into the United States. We hope this will provide more opportunities for your people to sell their goods into our market," she said.
Clinton pointed out that consultations will continue with the U.S. Congress and other relevant stakeholders about "additional steps" while the United States works with Burma on firming up the reform process.
Boon to economy
Congress decided last month to renew the import ban for another year but President Barack Obama has the authority to issue a waiver to ease the embargo.
The lifting of the import ban would provide a significant boon to Burma’s economy, which is in shambles after decades of mismanagement under a military dictatorship which ended in March last year when Thein Sein's nominally civilian government took over.
The U.S. and other key Western nations had piled sanctions against Burma in response to human rights abuses committed by the former military regime.
Thein Sein moved rapidly to allow the opposition to participate in parliamentary elections, negotiate peace agreements with the country’s ethnic groups, and release hundreds of political prisoners to stamp his mark as a reformer.
The Burmese leader is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday. He is expected to highlight the reforms implemented by his government and ask the international community for support and encourage investment in Burma.
Late Tuesday, Thein Sein, dressed casually in a sweater with no tie, held an informal meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently on a 17-day U.S. visit, at the Mark Hotel in New York City, Burmese Minister in the President’s Office Soe Thein said.
He said that the two met in line with their common objective to help Burma cope with the current transition to democratic rule.
“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi came to greet the president. We met and exchanged things about our trip and few things about the needs of the country,” Soe Thein told RFA’s Burmese service on Wednesday.
“We are working together for the benefit of [Burma’s] nearly 60 million people. Sister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is doing her job for the country, and the president is doing his job for the country as well. So it is a joint effort.”
Thein Sein arrived in New York on Tuesday, the first visit to the U.S. by a Burmese leader in nearly half a century.
Aung San Suu Kyi is on a coast-to-coast tour of the U.S., her first trip to the country since her release in November 2010 from nearly two decades of house arrest under the military junta.
Thein Sein will not meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, Thoe Sein said, adding that he was not concerned about being upstaged by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was welcomed to the Oval office for a private meeting with the U.S. leader last week.
“Whether or not we meet with Obama is not the issue. Some would say, ‘He’s meeting with this person but not with that one.’ We don't have that thought,” Soe Thein said.
He said the relationship between the president and the leader of his opposition has become closer.
“It is not like before, when [they] didn't meet each other. Now it has changed and they are like brother and sister,” Soe Thein said.
The two politicians see eye-to-eye on a number of plans for Burma’s future, including the need for the U.S. to abandon sanctions, which Aung San Suu Kyi has said were useful as a tool against the former military regime, but should now be removed to allow the Burmese people to “control their own destiny” in reshaping the nation.
Soe Thein said that Obama understood why Burma wants sanctions removed.
“We don't expect to be like the U.S., but we want to be able to reach a level of success in our region. He [Obama] acknowledges this, and step by step is doing what he can,” he said.
Analysts said the lifting of the U.S. import ban would be a big boost for the Burmese leadership.
“The timing of this announcement is a big win for Thein Sein,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, New York-based Asia Society’s Vice President of Global Policy Programs.
“He will return from his first visit to the U.S. as Myanmar’s [Burma's] president with a major boost to his reform agenda. It’s a concrete deliverable that will go a long way towards muffling critics and hardliners at home.”
She said Aung San Suu Kyi’s endorsement of a further easing of sanctions to audiences in Washington last week certainly helped to bring about the change.
"There was worry that her visit to the U.S. would overshadow him [Thein Sein]. But the reality is that she has helped pave the way for Thein Sein by striking a conciliatory tone and underscoring that they both are working toward a common goal.”
The U.S. Treasury earlier Wednesday lifted bans on two defunct Burmese banks, the Myanmar Mayflower Bank and Asia Wealth Bank. The move was largely symbolic as the banks no longer exist.
Reported by Thin Thiri for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English with additional reporting by Rachel Vandenbrink and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.