The Cable

Senate reauthorizes ban on U.S. imports from Burma

The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that includes a provision reauthorizing the U.S. ban on imports from Burma by a unanimous vote. The bill reauthorizes the ban on U.S. imports from Burma for three years, with a caveat whereby the president or his delegee, the secretary of state, could decide to wave that prohibition ...

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/GettyImages
TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/GettyImages

The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that includes a provision reauthorizing the U.S. ban on imports from Burma by a unanimous vote.

The bill reauthorizes the ban on U.S. imports from Burma for three years, with a caveat whereby the president or his delegee, the secretary of state, could decide to wave that prohibition for one year.

Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats, who was in favor of the legislation, said on Tuesday during a speech in Washington that he expected the bill to pass and that it would provide an incentive to the Burmese government to continue with its democratic reforms.

"What we have said all long is that it’s action for action," Hormats said about the process of easing sanctions on Burma, which began when President Barack Obama lifted the ban on investing in the country.

Hormats added that he expects the congressional opposition to the recent lifting of sanctions on U.S. investment in Burma, particularly including in the energy sector, will not result in a repeal.

"I would find it very surprising if Aung San Suu Kyi and the other reformers thought this was a good idea and Congress got much support for repealing [the lifting of sanctions]," said Hormats.

Senate leaders such as John McCain (R-AZ) are concerned that the state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which controls all of Burma’s oil and gas assets, is notoriously opaque and is known to funnel money to a select few people. In order to increase transparency and reduce corruption, Hormats noted that Burma has agreed to join the Extraction Industries Transparency Initiative, which monitors industry practices and revenue flow. Suu Kyi has frequently cautioned the United States against cooperating with MOGE.

If the Burmese government wants more sanctions lifted, it will have to resolve issues related to the treatment of cultural minorities and release more political prisoners, said Hormats.

"They’ve released 500," Hormats said. "But there are more."

The undersecretary, who returned from a trip to Burma just over a week ago, emphasized that he saw much cause for optimism about the country’s democratic transition.

"The members of the junta who previously ran Burma in a very authoritarian way are now for the most part the vanguard of the reform effort," he explained. "This time, the old guard is the new guard."

Still, there are no guarantees. Escalating tensions and recent violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Burma’s Rakhine state has displaced about 80,000 people and killed 78.

"As the president and secretary have said, this is still fragile — there’s no guarantee it’s going to continue, but … we got quite a good feeling that they are committed to doing this," Hormats said about Burma’s transition process.

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