Obama Lifts Burmese Import Bans

The Obama administration made it official. Goods made in Burma, now called Myanmar, may be imported into the United States, except for rubies and jade, whose mining is controlled by the central government.

The executive order issued Aug. 7 by President Obama comes after the State Department waived the ban last November.

The bans had been part of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, legislation enacted by Congress that expired July 28.

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell was the original sponsor of the legislation. He announced in May he would not seek to extend the 2003 legislation because of Myanmar’s democratic progress. The legislation was renewed annually.

McConnell was, for years, one of the harshest critics in Congress of Myanmar’s military rulers and a fervent supporter of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act he sponsored had imposed a broad ban on all imports from Myanmar.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a statement that it is part of the administration’s efforts “to promote responsible trade and investment in support of Burma’s reform process.”

Before the ban took place in 2003, about half of all the textiles and clothing made in that country, located northwest of Thailand, was exported to the United States. In recent years, Myanmar shipped as much as $409 million a year in apparel and textiles to the United States, according to the Department of Commerce.

There is still a small garment sector based around Yangon, the country’s capital, which employs about 20,000 people at 200 factories. Workers make about $80 a month.

Last year, Myanmar exported about $770 million in garments to primarily Japan, which received $243 million in apparel and textiles. That may increase. The Japanese fast-fashion retailer Uniqlo, whose shelves are stocked with casualwear, said it will start sourcing in Myanmar.

Other recipients of the bulk of Myanmar’s apparel production are South Korea and Europe.

Earlier this year, representatives from Li & Fung, which does some apparel production in that country, visited Myanmar to talk with top ministers about revving up the apparel industry.

Myanmar was ruled by a military dictatorship for nearly five decades and was quite repressive. A new government came to power in 2011, releasing many political prisoners, holding elections for a new Parliament and freeing democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi from nearly 20 years of house arrest.

Since her release from house arrest, the opposition leader has visited Norway to collect a Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 and gone to Washington, D.C., to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.