US Senate Row Sees Burma Import Ban Lifted

By Lalit K Jha 27 July 2012

The United States Congress failed to renew the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act (BFDA) on Thursday as the Senate was unable to agree on the important piece of legislation which has prohibited Burmese imports for nearly a decade.

“I am extremely disappointed the Senate was unable to come to an agreement on the annual renewal of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act,” Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the Senate, said in a statement.

Senators objected to the legislation as it also funds a preferential trade program for African countries which would allegedly cost the American taxpayer US $200 million over the next three years.

Mitch McConnell sponsored renewing the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act. (Photo: US Senate)
Mitch McConnell sponsored renewing the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act. (Photo: US Senate)

Therefore, although the ban on Burmese imports is now due to expire at the end of the month, observers say this is only likely to be temporary as measure still receives strong support. There were suggestions of solving the political wrangle by splitting the legislation into its separate Burma and African constituent parts.

McConnell, who had sponsored the renewal, said that he offered to call up the BFDA and pass it as a standalone measure but this also did not succeed.

“Though I support passing the other trade measures reported out of the Finance Committee, I believe this is a fair resolution in order to respond to the expiring sanctions, and one that would help Congress continue to move forward on passing BFDA while differences on other unrelated trade matters could be resolved,” he said.

“Unfortunately, passing BFDA as a freestanding measure was objected to by a Democrat colleague. I am unaware of any Republican Senator concerns to passing BFDA while negotiations continue on the other trade bills,” McConnell said.

The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act was signed into law on July 28, 2003 by the then-US President George W Bush and has since been renewed annually by the US Congress.

“Among other measures, the legislation bans the import of Burmese products. The executive order freezes the assets of senior Burmese officials and bans virtually all remittances to Burma. By denying these rulers the hard currency they use to fund their repression, we are providing strong incentives for democratic change and human rights in Burma,” Bush said in his statement at the initial signing.

Only last week, the US Senate’s Finance Committee voted to maintain a ban on Burmese imports for three additional years. “By reauthorizing the import sanctions for three years, we maintain pressure on the Burmese government to undertake reforms,” the Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said.

McConnell has argued that the Burmese government has still not met all the necessary conditions to justify a complete repeal of all existing sanctions. “Despite the unmistakable progress made by the Burmese government, now is not the time to end our ability either to encourage further governmental reform or to revisit sanctions if necessary,” he said earlier.

Meanwhile, the Under Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs Robert Hormats told foreign journalists that Washington was keeping pressure on Naypyidaw despite the recent easing of restrictive measures by President Barack Obama.

“We have eased sanctions on Burma. The easing of the sanctions includes two major elements, one of which is that we are now able to export financial services to Burma. That essentially means that American financial institutions can operate in Burma in a variety of ways which was not possible before. And also, and very importantly, American companies can now invest in Burma. And this was also prohibited before,” he said.

“There are still some sanctions left. One of which is that Burmese products cannot be imported into the United States. There’s a specific prohibition on precious stones and metals that come from Burma cannot be exported into the United States. We still have restrictions on our ability to vote in multilateral institutions in favor of projects to Burma.”