As we have reported in recent months, the United States consistently has been taking steps to expand diplomatic and commercial relations with Myanmar. And in recent weeks, that effort has continued.
To begin with, on September 26, 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Myanmar President Thein Sein that the United States intends to ease its ban on imports from Myanmar. The import ban is the most significant remaining restriction on U.S. trade with Myanmar. Lifting it is unlikely to unleash a flood of imports into the United States from Myanmar, but it will nonetheless be an important step to demonstrate that the United States really is ready to establish normal – or close to normal – trading relations with Myanmar.
This step is complicated somewhat by the fact that the import ban is not merely the result of an Executive Order, the genesis for many sanctions regulations. Instead, the import ban is in place pursuant to the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, and thus Congress needs to act in order for the ban to be eased or lifted. Such Congressional action reportedly may come sometime after U.S. elections in November.
Earlier in September, the Treasury Department, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had removed individual sanctions against President Sein and Shwe Mann, the Speaker of Myanmar’s Lower House of Parliament. This action enables Mr. Sein and Mr. Mann to access assets blocked in U.S. banks or by other U.S. parties. Again, this is unlikely to lead to a deluge of new business with Myanmar, but it is an important symbolic step, especially with respect to President Sein, as it sends the message that the United States believes his commitment to reform is genuine.
While holding up action on the import ban, the U.S. Congress nonetheless has taken some small steps itself. In particular, both the U.S. House of Representatives (on September 19) and the U.S. Senate (on September 22) passed legislation that authorizes the United States to support multilateral lending to Myanmar. This legislation, in turn, enables President Obama to waive the requirement that U.S. representatives to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund vote against loans to Myanmar.
Myanmar itself must be feeling confident: the most recent edition of Foreign Affairs, published by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, includes a 10-page advertisement on the investment and business opportunities in Myanmar. The final page of the advertisement refers to Myanmar as “Asia’s next lion economy.”
It remains to be seen whether Myanmar will turn into an Asian lion (or tiger), but the recent steps the United States has taken to ease restrictions on the country can only help.