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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.
U.S. officials argue that by strengthening commercial and military links, America can encourage reform and better influence policy.
"As I've said before, such engagement is intended to further reform," said Ambassador Mitchell. "No one is talking about arms sales."
"Clearly there are deep problems here," he added. "But the military is absolutely critical to the future of the country and clearly some engagement is required to help them think about what it means to be a progressive professional force. We're going to move very gradually."
Myanmar businesses say warmer relations with the West can create tens of thousands of jobs and bolster foreign reserves.
"We welcome the lifting of EU sanctions and the restoration of GSP status," said Myint Soe, chairman of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association and vice chairman of the Union of Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a lobby group. "This will be a big boost to Myanmar's garment industry."
Some human rights groups, however, argue that Western nations are moving too swiftly to re-engage, thus losing valuable leverage to pressure the government to address ongoing human rights violations.
Washington revoked Myanmar's GSP privileges in 1989, over concerns about labor rights.
Marantis said he emphasized the importance of ending forced labor and allowing workers to organize, as well as protecting intellectual property — all conditions for gaining GSP approval — in his meetings with Myanmar officials this week. He said he also began negotiating a formal framework for trade and investment dialogue with top Myanmar officials on Thursday.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, urged the U.S. to thoroughly examine Myanmar's progress on labor rights. He said there are still significant problems with forced labor, particularly in remote areas, and some unions have difficulty organizing.
An overly hasty reinstatement of GSP, he said, "would undermine the ability of the U.S. government to push for improved respect for labor rights."
He said military engagement was "clearly premature." Human Rights Watch says the military continues to target civilians and engage in torture, sexual slavery and extrajudicial killings.
"Why is there a presumption the Burmese military wants to reform?" he said. "What's the evidentiary basis for that? Is this the U.S. government and international community just seeing what they want to see?"