U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Washington will take steps to lift a ban on imports from Burma in response to continued reforms by the country's military-backed government.
At a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Clinton told Burma's President Thein Sein that the U.S. will "begin the process" of easing restrictions on Burmese goods into the United States.
The move, to be made with the cooperation of Congress, would represent the removal of the last major U.S. trade sanction against Burma, which is recovering from decades of political and economic isolation.
It follows recent U.S. decisions to restore diplomatic relations and lift sanctions on U.S. investment in Burma.
President Thein Sein, who has overseen a wave of reforms since taking power last year, said he was "very grateful" and that the Burmese people are "very pleased" with the American moves.
Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week expressed her support for lifting the import ban, saying further easing of sanctions would help the Burmese people. Clinton said Wednesday the move was made in part because of requests from both the government and the opposition.
Bo Hla Tint, Burma analyst and former foreign minister of the Washington-based Burma government-in-exile, says he expects the move will, over time, benefit Burma's poverty-stricken population.
"The United States is one of the biggest markets not only for Burma, but also for other countries in the Asian region," he said. "So it will be very helpful."
Bo Hla Tint says Burma is probably not ready to begin building factories that would produce clothing and other textiles that could be imported to the United States. But he says the move is important because it could persuade Burma's leaders to continue making democratic reforms.
Since taking power in March of last year, the government of Thein Sein, a former general, has begun releasing political prisoners, relaxing censorship and opening dialogue with the democratic opposition and armed ethnic minority groups.
But Washington has continued to push Burma to take further steps, including releasing all remaining political prisoners, making peace deals with ethnic groups and ending suspected ties with North Korea's military.
Jennifer Quigley of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma says that she is disappointed at the lifting of the import ban, but she acknowledges that it will have some positive impact.
"There will be some jobs available to some of those in the urban areas that were previously not there. But our bigger concern is that the very last piece of leverage against the Burmese military is now gone," said Quigley. "And sanctions were imposed for human rights and political reasons, so it doesn't really leave any opportunity to apply any pressure going forward for the big problems that remain in the country."
Some observers have speculated that Washington is partly motivated to renew relations with Burma as part of its strategic pivot towards Asia, which is seen by many as an attempt to counter the rising influence of China.