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US Congress Takes Step Toward Toughening Burma Trade Sanctions - 2003-06-11

The U.S. Congress has moved closer to imposing tough new sanctions on the military government of Burma. With an overwhelming 97-1 vote, the Senate approved legislation to bar U.S. imports from Burma Wednesday.

With Senate passage, Congress is a step closer to significantly strengthening sanctions in response to the latest crackdown on Burma's democracy movement and the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy or NLD.

"We should not abandon the people of Burma during the greatest moment of their need," said Republican Senator Mitch McConnell is the main sponsor of the Senate bill.

"The people of Burma have made their aspirations known, and the regime has not silenced them into submission," he said. "They [the military regime] have not stilled their [the Burmese people's] hearts for political change and they will not succeed in stemming our collective resolve.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives International Relations Committee is scheduled to approve an almost identical bill, sending it on for consideration and expected approval by the full House.

The legislation would greatly expand on restrictions Congress approved in 1996 prohibiting new investment by U.S. companies in Burma.

All U.S. imports from Burma, consisting mostly of clothing and other textiles, would be banned. Any assets in the United States by Burma's State Peace and Development Council and its leaders would be frozen.

The United States would also be required to vote against loans to Burma's military government by international lending institutions. A visa ban applied to military government officials would be extended to the Rangoon-controlled Union Solidarity Development Association.

There were 56 Democratic and Republican senators co-sponsoring the legislation. One of them, California's Dianne Feinstein, said while she generally frowns upon use of economic sanctions, in certain situations they can achieve results.

"There are certain circumstances, South Africa was one of them, largely because the world responds and the world says, enough is enough, there must be change," she said. "And we're prepared to carry out these sanctions together to effect that change."

The value of Burma's garment and other textile exports to the United States fell to $78 million in 2002, from a previous high of $400 million.

Burmese democracy and human rights groups attributed this to a boycott campaign aimed at embarrassing companies sourcing goods in Burma. Many large companies stopped the practice.

Senate legislation provides for an annual assessment by Congress on whether the sanctions should be continued.

Conditions for ending sanctions include progress to end human rights abuses, release of all political prisoners, and an agreement between the military government and the National League for Democracy and ethnic minorities to transfer to a popularly-elected civilian government.