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US Imposes New Sanctions on Burma - 2003-09-01


The United States has imposed tough new economic sanctions against Burma, and some business people say they already are forcing many textile factories to close. The sanctions are aimed at pressuring the military government to free detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The new U.S. sanctions will deny the military government access to the hard currency it needs. Starting August 28, the United States banned all imports from Burma and froze financial assets members of the government hold in the United States.

The U.S. market accounts for some 25 percent of Burma's official exports. In 2002, textiles, footwear and other exports to the United States were worth $350 million.

Business people in Rangoon say the sanctions have already begun to bite. In the weeks before the sanctions went into effect, U-S orders began falling. As a result about one-third of Burma's three hundred textile and garment factories closed operations, leaving tens of thousands of workers - mostly young women - jobless.

The human rights group ASEAN Network in Burma wants more countries to back the U-S measures. The group's spokeswoman, Debbie Stothard, says the ban will cut access to U.S. currency needed in international trade. "The sanctions are definitely biting. It's not just the ban on trade - on imports to the U.S. that is causing the pain; it's also the ban on remittances of U.S. dollars that are being routed through U.S. accounts," she says. "This means that the regime is getting gradually starved of U.S. dollars."

The sanctions add to older ones imposed years ago after the military government cracked down on democracy activists. The new ones come in response to the government's arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in May. Western governments want her and other members of her National League for Democracy freed.

Ms. Stothard says that Burma's recent cabinet reshuffle, with the appointment of military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt as prime minister, was aimed at lessening the sanctions' damage. Prime Minister Khin Nyunt has said external pressure will only distance Burma from democracy. In the state media, the government says the sanctions will fuel hatred and international conflict.

In the 1960s, Burma adopted a socialist policy that effectively shut the economy off from the outside world. Despite some economic liberalization in the past decade, Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia.

Many governments oppose the U.S. stance. Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai says the sanctions will hurt ordinary people. "We do not agree on sanctions. And we said that so many times because sanctions don't lead to democracy," he says. "Sanctions create hardship for the poor, so we have a different approach, we do not adopt sanctions."

Mr. Surakiart says there are already more than one million Burmese refugees in Thailand and more will be driven across the border in search of work as the sanctions tighten.

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