Lifting Burma Import Ban Close: US Official

By Lalit K Jha 26 September 2012

The United States is considering lifting the Burma import embargo, a structured bilateral dialogue, ramping up investment in the former pariah nation and starting a military relationship, a senior White House official revealed on Tuesday.

At the same time, the US would continue to press the Burmese government on several issues of concern including human rights violations, remaining political prisoners and ongoing ethnic conflicts, said the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell.

The US was close to lifting remaining trade restrictions on Burma in line with Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent endorsement of easing sanctions, Campbell told a day-long conference on Burma organized by prominent Washington-based think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“You all know that we saw some substantial progress in the immediate aftermath of Aung San Suu Kyi being here last week,” he said. “So Congress responded to her calls in that regard, and I think we’ll be working closely with Capitol Hill on next steps.

“She also indicated that a lifting of the import embargo would be an important sign that certain kinds of investment and manufacturing and other kinds of activities inside the country would be welcomed by the United States and supported, and I think we’ve heard that message very clearly.”

On the eve of the crucial meeting between Burmese President Thein Sein and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Campbell noted that it might be very early days for the American business community.

“I think there are a number of exciting opportunities in that regard, but it will be hard and challenging,” he said. “That is one of the issues that we’re going to talk about tomorrow when the secretary meets with the [Burmese] president. We have some specific initiatives. [Thein Sein] is extremely interested in what we can do to encourage that next phase of our engagement.”

Campbell identified the ethnic conflict as one of the “thorniest, most challenging” set of issues that confronts the military-dominated nation. “That really touches every part of the country, every aspect of life inside Burma today,” he said.

“And I will tell you that in the past, when we have touched on these issues in discussions both with opposition leaders and with government officials, it’s been extraordinarily difficult, and very opposed to outside interference or engagement in those matters,” explained Campbell, while adding the US would support any effort in this regard.

Campbell indicated that the United States would now support Burmese efforts towards international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“What will be absolutely essential is for the international financial institutions and the multilateral development banks to work on appropriate programs for health, for education, for other aspects of infrastructure inside the country that some aspects of business investment just won’t initially touch,” he said.

“We will work appropriately on these efforts; again, more to come very shortly. We have in mind a few ambitious ideas of how we can help bring together other partners and to apply leverage support as we go forward.”

Campbell said vital to give structure to US-Burma interactions. “It’s time for more formalized bilateral dialogues, other kinds of engagements,” he said. “It will be critical for us to engage with key components inside the government. We think having a dialogue on foreign policy issues with the key players inside the executive branch makes enormous good sense, and we’re moving in that direction.”

The US is now also exploring the possibility of engaging with the Burmese military, one of the most important pillars of the state. “One of the institutions that has largely been left out of the engagement has been the military, and they play a critical role still inside the country,” said Campbell. “A lot of uncertainties about what their attitudes are to reform, and particularly what their role is in the prosecution of existing violence still on the ground, terrible violence in the ethnic areas.

“I think it’s going to be important that we engage responsibly with them,” he added. “But before we do so, we need to have the kind of dialogue with Capitol Hill, with key interlocutors, to make sure that we do not extend beyond what is defensible, what I think is appropriate for our national interests. And I think we’re beginning those discussions on Capitol Hill.”