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US to lift Myanmar import ban ahead of Obama trip

US to lift Myanmar import ban ahead of Obama trip

The United States was expected Friday to lift its ban on most imports from Myanmar days before President Barack Obama pays a landmark visit to the fast-changing nation, officials said.

However, the Treasury Department was likely to maintain its ban on the import of gems, which are seen as a major source of corruption, a congressional aide told AFP.

The Obama administration was also expected to expand a list of companies in the nation formerly known as Burma with which US firms are barred from doing business, the aide said on condition of anonymity.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in September — as she met in New York with President Thein Sein, who has spearheaded reforms — that the United States would be “normalizing our commercial relationship” with Myanmar.

Obama is to become the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar on Monday. He will deliver a speech encouraging further change and meet with Thein Sein and opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now a member of parliament.

The trip would have been unthinkable just a few years ago while Myanmar was led by a military regime that relied on China as its primary economic and political supporter.

But Thein Sein has surprised even many skeptics after becoming the nominal civilian leader last year, launching reforms such as freeing political prisoners, easing censorship and opening dialogue with ethnic rebels.

However, some human rights groups have accused Obama of moving too quickly, saying that he could use the prospect of a trip or the easing of sanctions as incentives for steps such as freeing remaining political prisoners or ensuring free elections in the future.

The Obama administration has already eased other sanctions such as letting US companies do business in Myanmar, including in the oil and gas sector, which activists charge is rife with labor abuses.

The steps put the United States closer in line with the European Union, Canada and Australia, which have suspended virtually all sanctions on Myanmar. Japan has forgiven $3.8 billion of Myanmar’s debt.

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