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The US Congress on Thursday extended a ban on imports from Burma, seeking to maintain pressure despite a series of reforms in the country that have prompted an easing of other sanctions.
The Senate and House of Representatives voted separately to extend by one year a ban on all imports from the country formerly known as Burma, which was ruled for decades by generals who gave power to a nominal civilian last year.
President Barack Obama has eased other restrictions on Burma in hopes of encouraging reform. On 11 July, he gave the green light to US companies to invest in Burma and partner with its controversial state oil and gas company.
Lawmakers said they were also encouraged by recent changes in Burma, including the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament, but wanted to maintain leverage to press for greater improvements.
“By renewing this bill today and keeping the measure on the books even as we are open to new flexibilities, we will help send a strong signal to those in Burma,” Representative Joe Crowley, a member of Obama’s Democratic Party, said on the House floor.
Crowley said the measure showed US support for “the immediate release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, an end to violence against all minorities including the Kachin and the Rohingya, and the adoption of genuine democratic reform in Burma.”
Republican Representative David Dreier said he would visit Burma next week and believed that the extension of sanctions “can play a role in continuing to encourage the positive reforms that we are seeing take place.”
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party’s Senate leader, said that the renewed import ban allowed for a potential waiver, giving Burma’s leaders the chance to see an end to sanctions if they make further progress.
McConnell, who spoke with Suu Kyi about the legislation, said he supported Obama’s decision to open Burma to US investment and called on American businesses to show the “positive effects” of their involvement.
“I am confident that, as they do elsewhere around the world, US enterprises in Burma will set the standard for ethical and transparent business practices and lead the way for others to follow,” McConnell said in a statement.
US businesses have pressed for a greater lifting of restrictions, fearing that they will lose out to competitors from European and Asian nations whose governments do not impose sanctions on Burma.
Since taking over last year, President Thein Sein has reached out to Suu Kyi – who spent most of the past two decades under house arrest – along with ethnic minority rebels.
But Burma’s endemic ethnic violence has persisted, with the powerful military battling rebels in the northern state of Kachin despite orders by Thein Sein to halt fighting.
Mob violence has also pitted Burma’s majority Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims, whom the government does not even recognize as a minority group.
Human Rights Watch said that members of Burma’s security forces opened fire and raped Rohingyas during recent sectarian violence and did nothing as rival mobs attacked one another.
Farah Pandith, the US special representative to Muslim communities, visited Burma for four days until Wednesday and met with members of the Rohingya and other ethnic groups, the State Department said.
Pandith “discussed areas for cooperation with Muslim communities in Burma, including education, rule of law and economic opportunity, with a particular focus on young people,” a State Department statement said.
The Obama administration opened dialogue with Burma in 2009 in a bid to coax the country out of its long isolation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a landmark visit in December.