US to boost trade, military ties with Myanmar

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 26, 2013 at 2:50 pm •  Published: April 26, 2013
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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar could get broad duty-free access to the U.S. market by year's end as the United States tries to deepen trade and military ties with the former military dictatorship.

Acting U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis said Friday that the U.S. could waive import duties on thousands of goods from Myanmar, including agricultural products, handicrafts, and some garments, by the end of this year under a program designed to help poor countries.

"It's a great opportunity for both sides," he said.

His office announced last week that Myanmar and Laos are being considered for preferential access to the U.S. market under a program called GSP, or the Generalized System of Preferences, designed to help poor countries develop. A public hearing on the issue is scheduled for June 4.

The move illustrates how deeply U.S. policy toward the former pariah state has changed. Until November, the U.S. banned imports from Myanmar. In response to rapid political reforms, Washington has suspended most sanctions, though it maintains bans on arms sales and gem imports, as well as a targeted list of sanctioned companies and individuals believed to have ties to the old regime.

The U.S. has moved more slowly than the European Union and Australia in normalizing relations, which some business groups argue puts U.S. investors at a competitive disadvantage. The European Union revoked its economic and political sanctions against Myanmar on Monday. Australia revoked its travel and financial sanctions in June 2012.

As America and other Western countries deepen commercial ties with Myanmar, they are also pushing to strengthen their engagement with Myanmar's armed forces, which have a long history of brutality and continue to wield considerable, but opaque power in the country.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Yun told Congress Thursday that the U.S. is "looking at ways to support nascent military engagement" with Myanmar, as way of encouraging "further political reforms."

He said the U.S. is eager to expose Myanmar's military to human rights standards and international humanitarian law, though Washington continues to press for progress on human rights and a clear end to military ties with North Korea.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell, along with the naval and defense attaches, met with the commander in chief of Myanmar's navy, Vice Admiral Thura Thet Swe.

The commander in chief of Myanmar's armed forces, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, has made it clear that the armed forces, which hold a quarter of seats in Parliament under the constitution, intend to continue to play a political role in the country. The prominence of the military was reinforced last month when the quasi-civilian government — whose top leadership is dominated by former military men — had to call in the army to quell religious riots that killed at least 40 people.

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