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US House Close to Approving Burma Legislation - 2003-07-15

The House of Representatives is moving toward final approval of legislation that would ban all imports from military-ruled Burma. Expected House passage of the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 would virtually clear the way for President Bush's signature, and a series of new sanctions on the military government in Rangoon.

The legislation would expand on measures taken seven years ago by imposing a ban on all trade with the Southeast Asian country.

Tens of thousands of Burmese work in the textile industry, and analysts say the ban is likely to cost the military and enterprises related to it, millions of dollars in lost income. Under the House bill, assets in the United States of Burma's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) or its leaders would be frozen.

Congressman Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and key human rights campaigner, is the main sponsor. "Now that the Rangoon regime has re-committed itself to destroying all democratic opposition in Burma, it is clear that dialogue is dead," he says. "National reconciliation is dead. And it is equally clear that we must adopt a new approach towards Burma, and that new approach must include tough sanctions."

The Bush administration generally opposes use of sanctions to achieve foreign policy goals.

Congressmen Jim Leach, the Republican chairman of the House Asia-Pacific Subcommittee, said recent events require a strong U.S. response.

"The long train of abuses by perpetrated by Burma's military regime leaves the U.S. and other members of the international community, most particularly Burma's neighbors in ASEAN, with no ethical alternative but to embrace a broader array of diplomatic and economic policy options, including sanctions, in this case Burmese imports to the United States, and utilization of the U.N. Security Council, to bring about a restoration of democracy," said Mr. Leach.

Once signed by President Bush, the law would also require the United States to vote against loans to Burma's military government by international lending institutions.

A visa ban on military government officials would be extended to the Rangoon-controlled Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA). The import ban extends to what the bill calls "known narcotics traffickers" or their immediate family members. The bill says the SPDC has failed to cooperate with the United States in stopping the flood of heroin and methamphetamines from areas under its control.

The sanctions must be renewed by Congress each year, and have been authorized for only three years. But they could end immediately if President Bush certifies Burma's military has made "substantial and measurable progress" toward concluding an agreement with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) to transfer power.

Other requirements include progress toward ending human rights violations, including use of forced labor, child labor, and conscription of child-soldiers, and the release of all political prisoners, along with freedom of speech, press, association and religion.

The steps to tighten sanctions were energized by the incident on May 30 in which pro-government crowds attacked a motorcade in which democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was riding. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed back in house arrest, and other officials of her National League for Democracy were also rounded up. The SPDC blamed the incident on democracy supporters.

In recent statements, the ruling military council has accused Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD of seeking to bring down Burma's military as part of their efforts for democratic rule.

Congressional approval has been welcomed by Burmese in exile and democracy activists who have pressed successive U.S. administrations for tougher measures. The United States cut off aid to Burma after the 1988 suppression of democracy demonstrations. In 1996, Congress banned all new U.S. investment in the country.

In moving toward approval of the legislation Monday, House lawmakers described their action as an expression of concern for the people of Burma. They urged other governments, notably in Europe and Asia, to join in increasing pressure on Burma's military.