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Activists Wary of US Easing Ban on Burmese Imports

Newspaper Seller Oo Zay Yar, says all of Burma welcomes President Barack Obama's visit because of the hope he can spur economic, social, and political developments, Rangoon, Burma, November 12, 2012. (D. Schearf/VOA)
Burma rights activists are greeting the U.S. decision to ease its ban on Burmese imports with caution, warning that rewarding the long-repressive government too rapidly could hinder sustainable reform.

The U.S. State and Treasury Departments say they are allowing Burmese goods that have been banned for nearly a decade to enter the United States as a way to support the Burmese government’s reform efforts and encourage further change. The decision does not affect the ban on Burmese jadeite and rubies, which will remain intact because of ongoing concerns about the trade, according to a joint statement.

Brian Leber, founder of the U.S.-based Jewelers’ Burma Relief Project, said although he is concerned many political and human rights issues remain unaddressed, he understands the Obama administration's view that you need to start somewhere.

“It's much easier to monitor sectors like textile production, where manufacturing centers in places like Rangoon can be inspected and monitored and any U.S. companies doing business directly with a producer in Burma can be held accountable, versus a sector like gemstones, which is somewhat unique in it's opacity, its circumvolutory path of getting goods to market, and it's a trade still rife with human rights violations and exploitation,” Leber said.

Economic and political shifts

Burma’s economy has undergone extreme change over the past 70 years, going from being the region’s wealthiest country to becoming one of the world's poorest. The decline reflects Burma’s political shifts, marked by a military coup in 1962, the nationalization of all industries, and a repressive crackdown on democratic activists and ethnic minority groups.

Since the 2010 elections, the new, nominally civilian government has moved to open the long-isolated country to foreign investment. The stigma of doing business with Burma has eased somewhat following the government’s release of political prisoners, relaxation of media censorship and inclusion of the political opposition in parliament.

Washington’s decision to ease its ban on Burmese imports and “offer new opportunities for Burmese and American businesses” came just days ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Rangoon Monday, the first by a U.S. leader.

Mixed messages

Mabrur Ahmed, director of the British-based rights group Restless Beings, said the policy change is “sending confusing messages.” It “does not encourage holistic reform, but reform in certain areas which are seen as worthy of American interest,” he said.

While opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is free from house arrest, Ahmed suggested the reforms have not reached Burma’s ethnic minority areas.

Clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have displaced tens of thousands of Muslims and left many dead in western Rakhine state. The area is also the site of a Chinese-backed oil pipeline project, which Ahmed blames for adding to the unrest.

“In order to accommodate the necessary machinery and mining facilities, it seems that an entire population of Kaman and Rohingya have been forcefully moved through razed villages to make way for such foreign trading facilities,” Ahmed said. “It is necessary that [while] Obama opens up trading links with Burma that he must instill and insist on the integrity and respect of human rights regardless of race, religion and ethnicity.”

The Obama administration has said the president’s visit to Burma is not an endorsement of the government and that he will raise human rights issues while there.

Double-edged development

Leber said this will be critical as Burma plots its course forward. “Development can be a double-edged sword and extreme care must be taken to ensure that it is done responsibly, lest Burma suffer the ‘resource curse’ that has afflicted other regions in the world. Too much, too fast should be avoided,” Leber said.

The International Monetary Fund is projecting Burma’s economy will grow by 6.2 percent this year as foreign investors like MasterCard, the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo sign deals, and ConocoPhilips and Chevron Corporation look to capitalize on the country’s oil and gas resources.

Leber said it is a good sign the Obama administration is upholding its ban on gems from Burma, as much of the jade and rubies that bring in millions of dollars for Burma’s leaders come from Kachin state, where a truce between the military and ethnic rebels has collapsed.

Burmese soldiers have “shot and killed other miners, gang-raped young girls to teach village elders the gem resources belong to the military, and basically turned Kachin state into a war zone,” Leber said. “The violence that is going on today is of the same type that inspired the sanctions in the first place.”

The Burmese government has pledged to find a long-term solution to the violence in Rakhine state. A solution to the situation in Kachin remains elusive.