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US Senate Schedules Debate on Trade Sanctions Against Burma Wednesday - 2003-06-10

Congress is moving closer to imposing new sanctions on the military government of Burma. The Senate is now scheduled to debate legislation to bar U.S. imports from Burma on Wednesday, while similar legislation was approved by a committee of the House of Representatives.

The Senate was due to take up the legislation Tuesday, but procedural problems, and debate on other legislation, forced a postponement.

Earlier Tuesday, initial statements by key Senators coincided with news that U.N. envoy for Burma, Razali Ismail, had finally been able to meet Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

However, lawmakers made clear their patience has run out. Senator Mitch McConnell was a key supporter of previous Burma sanctions legislation in the mid-1990s and is primary sponsor of the new sanctions bill.

"This is an unusual situation. The United States needs to send a message about this. It needs to send it now, and lead the rest of the world into a policy of multi-lateral sanctions that truly squeeze this regime," he said.

"As the strongest and most free nation in the world, I do believe that we have a profound duty to support that struggle for freedom," said Bill Frist, Senate Majority Leader.

Earlier, Senator McConnell rejected an effort by some lawmakers to modify the legislation to end sanctions after one year. Mr. McConnell said his bill would allow for ending sanctions as soon as democracy in Burma is restored. In the House of Representatives, the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee approved its version of the Burma legislation.

Its chairman, James Leach, reflected the view held by U.S. business interests and others that sanctions should be a last resort. But Burma's military, he said, had left Congress with little choice.

"While economic sanctions are seldom successful, the long train of abuses perpetrated by Burma's military regime leaves the United States and possibly other members of the international community, with no ethical or political alternative but to embrace a more comprehensive trade initiative," he said.

Once approved by both chambers and signed by President Bush, 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 textiles, would be banned. Any assets in the United States by Burma's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and its leaders would be frozen.

In the House committee hearing, Burmese democracy campaigner Maureen Aung Thwin argued in favor of even stronger measures. "I believe that we should consider pulling out all current American direct investments in Burma," she said. "American companies like UNOCAL and luxury tourism companies should no longer be able to contribute to the regime's coffers that go to support Burma's weapons of mass repression."

Strengthening sanctions against Burma was not something a Republican Bush administration, with its strong support from business interests, wanted to see happen.

However, the White House, frustrated with the lack of progress toward democracy in Burma, supports the legislation.