- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

The House is set to approve economic sanctions against Burma today, legislation meant to squeeze the ruling military regime’s business interests.

The sanctions would ban imports from the southeast Asian nation, seize the government assets, stop such financial institutions as the World Bank from lending assistance, and authorize President Bush to block current and former government officials’ travel to the United States.

International diplomatic pressure on Burma has increased since the country’s military junta locked up an opposition leader. Britain yesterday urged a travel boycott, Canada said last week that it would extend economic sanctions, and Japan has suspended aid.

The Senate in June approved legislation similar to the House’s. The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 passed with a 97-1 vote.

Burma placed Aung San Suu Kyi in custody May 30 after violent attacks on her supporters by pro-government groups.

Mrs. Suu Kyi’s political party won a 1990 election but the ruling junta refused to hand over power. The government has harassed her supporters and placed her under arrest for extended periods.

Burma’s leaders, who renamed the country Myanmar, have defended the most recent detention and accused Western nations of “meddling” in the country’s internal affairs.

The House bill would close off the world’s biggest market to Burma. Bush administration officials did not immediately say what steps it would take toward the country.

“We continue to work on a sanctions package, including an asset freeze for senior Burmese officials and a ban on remittances to Burma,” said a State Department official, who asked not to be named.

The administration has placed visa restrictions on senior Burmese officials and their immediate families, and has consulted “extensively” with Congress on legislation to ban imports, the official said.

Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, said last week that the United States also is evaluating additional measures at the United Nations and other multilateral bodies.

A House aide, who asked not to be named, said, “We have every reason to believe [the Bush administration] will be supportive of this bill.”

The legislation is aimed directly at the “thugs” who run Burma and own many of the major companies that sell products internationally, the aide said.

The trade sanctions most directly would effect apparel sales. Burma last year shipped $324.7 million in clothing and accessories to the United States, about 85 percent of the country’s exports to America, according to Census Bureau figures.

Seafood, wood and minerals are other major exports.

“I think it will have a substantial effect on the country. Those companies are owned by the thugs that rule Burma, and [trade sanctions] will start hitting them in their Swiss bank accounts,” the House aide said.

Others are more skeptical. While the United States officially is Burma’s largest market, accounting for 27 percent of its exports, government figures do not include illegal trade in drugs, exotic wood and gems, or border trade with neighboring China and Thailand.

“If you think that sanctions will cause the collapse of the military regime, I think you’re wrong,” said David I. Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Mr. Steinberg said sanctions are not supported by Burma’s neighbors and are not viewed as a debilitating punishment by the country’s rulers.

“This is an easy way to show displeasure, but whether it is effective, that is another question,” he said.

U.S. importers are concerned that goods that are paid for but have not yet arrived might be caught up in by the new trade rules.

But they are careful to say they do not condone the Burmese government’s actions.

“I think most everyone who has been there understands they are there at their own risk,” said Laura Jones, executive director of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, a New York trade group.

U.S. companies increasingly have avoided Burma. Imports have fallen by about a quarter since 2000.

The House sanctions would stay in place three years or until the president determines that the ruling party has made “substantial progress” on human rights and democratic government, and has cracked down on the illegal drug trade.

The president can waive the sanctions for national security reasons or if the World Trade Organization rules that the measures are in violation of U.S. obligations.

Burma is a WTO member and could contest the sanctions there, but the House aide said that it is unlikely the country would want an international review of its human rights record.

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