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US Lawmakers Monitoring Burma Situation

As the world watches political developments in Burma, the U.S. Congress is adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Lawmakers say it's too early for a change in U.S. policy on economic sanctions, and bipartisan legislation introduced last year to ban all imports from Burma is still very much alive.

When it comes to Burma, lawmakers are now shifting their focus to one question: What comes next?

Although the Burmese military government says Aung San Suu Kyi is free to engage in political activities, lawmakers say it's too early to roll back sanctions, such as the 1997 ban on all new U.S. investment.

As Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, puts it: We ought to keep the champagne on ice, and the sanctions on the table.

"This is an example of where international sanctions are working," he said. "This regime needs to step aside and honor the elections that were held over a decade ago which they have refused to go along with."

Last year, identical bills in the House and Senate proposed to ban all trade with Burma. Their primary target: Burma's textile exports to the United States, estimated to have quadrupled since 1997 to some $470 million. The legislation never came to a vote. But despite speculation that it now will be shelved, congressional aides say it is still alive.

Bill Goold is legislative assistant to Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, who co-sponsored the trade ban legislation with conservative Senator Jesse Helms.

"The current sanctions need to be kept in place," he said. "Indeed, we need to proceed with action on the Harkin-Helms legislation unless and until there are other major changes on the ground in Burma."

Mr. Goold says the legislation never hinged on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. He says Burma's military still needs to release all political prisoners, allow the NLD full freedoms, and end forced labor. He says the legislation to ban textile imports from Burma could be attached to the controversial trade promotion authority bill now being debated on Capitol Hill.

"We're importing more than $400 million worth of apparel and textiles, this year alone," he said. "That is an important source of hard currency to the existing regime."

In the House of Representatives, lawmakers are also taking a cautionary approach toward developments in Burma. Republican Dana Rohrabacher of California says the release of Aung San Suu Kyi was only one positive step.

"Releasing Aung San Suu Kyi is not enough to get the Burmese dictatorship off the hook. But if they continue going down that path and continue making reforms - they don't have to be perfect by the time we start reacting by lifting some of the economic sanctions against them - but until we have more than just one act on their part we can't assume this is anything more than just a token thrown in our direction," he said. "When we find out that they really want to go back to a democratic government and even though they haven't gone all the way back yet or made all the reforms necessary then we can start un-restricting the trade and relationship we've had in the past."

Some lawmakers are already looking ahead to the day when Aung San Suu Kyi can join other world figures, such as South Africa's Nelson Mandela with whom she is often compared in addressing a joint session of Congress.

Senator Mitch McConnell says when Aung San Suu Kyi is able to travel outside of Burma, she would no doubt receive a tumultuous welcome on Capitol Hill.

"I think she would certainly be welcome," he said. "I think it would be a very crowded joint session if she were able to come here. I think she would be invited and would be welcomed overwhelmingly."

For now, however, lawmakers say they will continue to watch closely for signs Burma's military intends to follow Aung San Suu Kyi's release with further reforms.