Ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to Burma, the U.S. State Department announced Friday that it is easing the import ban on Burmese goods.
The State Department said the decision follows on a statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in September 26 that the U.S. would begin the process of easing restrictions on imports of Burmese goods in response to the substantial and significant reforms that have taken place in that country over the past year. According to the the State Department, “The United States has taken another step in the normalization of our bilateral economic relationship by broadly authorizing Burmese-origin goods to enter the United States for the first time in almost a decade.”
On November 19, President Obama will visit Burma to hold meetings with President Thein Sein and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in the first visit to Burma by a sitting U.S. president.
“Obama’s trip to Burma risks providing an undeserved seal of approval to the military-dominated government that is still violating human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Obama’s success in securing tangible commitments on human rights, not his mere presence in the country, is crucial for promoting genuine and lasting reform.”
But according to the State Department, “The government of Burma and Burmese leadership, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have expressed a desire that the import ban be eased in order to further integrate their country into the global economy.”
According to the State Department, today’s decision is intended to support the Burmese government’s ongoing reform efforts and to encourage further change, as well as to offer new opportunities for Burmese and American businesses.
The State Department said in a statement that President Thein Sein’s government has released hundreds of political prisoners, removed pre-publication censorship requirements for the press, and enacted a labor law that permits the formation of labor unions. The government has also passed a new Foreign Investment Law, and is making efforts to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
The State Department also said that Burma has established ceasefire agreements with ten armed ethnic groups, is pursuing negotiations with the last major ethnic armed group that has not yet signed a ceasefire agreement, and is establishing mechanisms to work toward a sustainable ethnic reconciliation process.
“Steps have been taken toward democratization; the parliamentary by-elections held in April 2012 were largely free and fair, and 43 opposition party members were elected to Parliament,” said the State Department.
But human rights organizations say there are still severe rights issues in Burma that need to be addressed.
Obama should press for the release of all political prisoners and an end to abuses by state security forces in ethnic minority areas, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
According to HRW, Obama should also publicly call for legal and constitutional reform in Burma, including ending military authority to dismiss the government, dropping the military’s 25 percent quota of parliamentary seats, and revising laws limiting basic rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
All those responsible for serious abuses should be held to account, Human Rights Watch said.