By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Jade and rubies from Myanmar will remain banned from the United States unless the Asian nation moves to end a provision in its constitution that bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president, a senior U.S. senator said on Thursday.
Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican party's leader in the Senate, said there is little appetite in the U.S. Congress to reinstate stiff trade sanctions that were imposed on Myanmar during its decades of tough military rule.
However, he said in a Senate speech, if the country does not make further reforms - and address human rights concerns - he cannot see an ending of further restrictions, including the ban on jade and ruby imports and sanctions on individuals deemed to be hindering further reforms.
"It is hard to see how those provisions get lifted without there being progress on the constitutional eligibility issue and the closely related issue of the legitimacy of the 2015 elections," said McConnell, who has taken a long-term interest in Myanmar and visited two years ago.
Improving relations with Myanmar has been a priority with the U.S. government, but lately Washington has been concerned that the Asian nation also known as Burma is backing away from its reform agenda. This included releasing political prisoners, releasing Suu Kyi from house arrest and easing restrictions on freedom of the press.
"In light of these democratic reforms - many of which I witnessed firsthand when I visited the country in January 2012 - I believe that to no small degree Burma has been a remarkable story among many dark developments in the world today," McConnell said.
Myanmar has a by-election late this year and a parliamentary election in 2015. But its constitution bars anyone from running for president who has immediate family members who are foreign nationals. Suu Kyi's late husband and two sons are British, and many observers believe the provision was written specifically to keep the Nobel prize winner from seeking the office.
McConnell said a parliamentary committee is working on a constitutional reform proposal, and that he is concerned it would not change the provision. He said he the provision would "cast a pall over the legitimacy of the election in the eyes of the international community and members of the Senate."
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle)