By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Congress voted on Thursday to extend a ban on imports from Myanmar, along with White House authority to waive the restriction if the Southeast Asian nation continues to make political and economic reforms.
Both the Senate and the House of Representative approved the legislation on a voice vote, sending it to President Barack Obama to sign into law.
The bill reauthorizes the ban for three years, but only extends it for one year to allow Congress an opportunity to revisit the issue in 2013. The White House can end the ban early if it determines Myanmar has met conditions.
By passing the bill, "the U.S. Congress sent a clear message that we will continue to stand squarely with the Burmese people in their struggle for human rights," said Representative Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat.
Myanmar, also known by its former colonial name of Burma, began emerging last year from decades of isolation when its long-time military dictator, Than Shwe, stepped aside and a quasi-civilian government took over.
The new government, led by President Thein Sein, a former military general, has started overhauling the country's economy, easing media censorship, legalizing trade unions and protests and freeing political prisoners.
The United States has responded by easing some sanctions, starting with a decision last month to allow U.S. companies to invest in Myanmar and provide financial services there.
Other sanctions remain place, including the import ban first passed by the Congress in 2003 to put pressure on Myanmar's military leaders to release longtime political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and make reforms.
Suu Kyi was released in 2010 and elected to parliament this year in a dramatic sign of the changes underway.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a driving force behind the original import ban and annual renewals, hailed the "historic changes on the ground in Burma" but said there were significant challenges that still need to addressed.
"Hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. The constitution still has a number of undemocratic elements. And the regime's relationship with North Korea, especially when it comes to arms sales with Pyongyang, remains an issue of grave concern," McConnell said.
Ongoing violence in Kachin state and sectarian tensions in Arakan state "also reflect the long-term challenge of national reconciliation," McConnell said.
OBAMA PREPARED TO EASE SANCTIONS
Ending the U.S. import ban would provide a badly needed source of employment in a resource-rich, but economically poor country suffering from a roughly 25 percent unemployment rate.
The United States imported $356.4 million of clothing and other goods from Myanmar in 2002, the last full year before the import ban was imposed. Imports fell to $275.7 million in 2003 and have been zero in most years since then.
U.S. companies are allowed to export to Myanmar and last year shipments increased about fivefold to $48 million. Those figures pale in comparison to two-way U.S. trade with Myanmar's neighbor Thailand, which was nearly $36 billion in 2011.
Other U.S. sanctions include a ban on jewelry made with rubies and jade mined in Myanmar and a requirement the United States oppose loans to the country from lending institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Obama administration officials have said they are prepared to ease those sanctions on an "action for action" basis as Myanmar makes further reforms.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)