Sen. Webb supports opening trade with Myanmar

AP News
Posted: Apr 19, 2012 6:04 PM
Sen. Webb supports opening trade with Myanmar

The United States should consider opening up trade relations with Myanmar to reward the Asian country for its democratic reforms, an influential senator said Thursday.

Democratic Sen. Jim Webb told The Associated Press that it is important to support President Thein Sein's "bold leap" in relaxing decades of authoritarian rule.

After opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party swept special elections this month, the Obama administration said it would ease restrictions on financial services and investment.

But tough U.S. sanctions also bar imports from Myanmar into the U.S.

"In all of these situations there's a moment in time you have to take advantage of," said Webb, who visited Myanmar this month. "We should have some protections in there, but we should move forward on trade."

Webb is a longtime advocate of increased U.S. engagement with Myanmar, and in 2009, became the only U.S. politician to meet with former junta leader, Than Shwe.

He pointed to substantive changes in Myanmar over the past year: more freedom for the media and political opposition parties, and the election to parliament of former political prisoner Suu Kyi, whose misfortunes had largely driven the imposition of sanctions in the first place.

"I think those sorts of gestures should be recognized," he said.

Next week, officials say the European Union will suspend for one year most of its economic sanctions against the country, also known as Burma, and could include it on a list of nations with preferential access to the EU market.

Webb, who chairs a Senate panel overseeing U.S. policy on East Asia and the Pacific, said he is calling a hearing next week with Obama administration officials discuss the practicalities of relaxing the myriad and overlapping sanctions.

Over the past three years, the administration has abandoned Washington's two-decade isolation of the military-dominated country, and has said it will "meet action with action" _ gradually easing sanctions to reciprocate the government's reforms. On Tuesday, it eased financial sanctions to facilitate charity work by U.S. groups, and is soon expected to nominate the first U.S. ambassador to Myanmar since 1990.

While the U.S. is likely to retain investment bans on business sectors such as those dealing with natural resources and precious stones perceived to be closely linked to the military, it is expected to allow investment in areas such as tourism, agriculture, telecommunications and banking.

Some Myanmar dissidents say it is too soon to allow investment, and fear if sanctions are lifted too fast, the government could drag its feet on further political reforms. The government still holds a number of political prisoners and the military is accused of continuing human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas.

Webb said it is important to create incentives for further reform as conservative elements linked to the former government are still nervous about the changes.

"You could go too slow and also encourage negative reactions," he said.

Webb noted how Vietnam had benefited from the lifting of a U.S. trade embargo as the former enemies resumed ties in the 1990s. However, he acknowledged that Vietnam, which remains a one-party state, "has a long way to go in terms of what we would like to see governmentally."