WASHINGTON The United States is encouraged by economic and political reforms underway in Myanmar but needs to see further progress before easing a long-time ban on U.S. imports from the resource-rich Asian country, a top U.S. official said on Monday.
Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats, who along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently met with Myanmar's President Thein Sein, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies he was optimistic the long-isolated country intended to stay on the path of reform
"In the meeting with Secretary Clinton, (Thein Sein) was very clear that he wanted to do things to improve the living standards of his people ... He was very direct, and I think very persuasive and credible," Hormats said.
President Barack Obama's administration has already eased some sanctions on Myanmar, also known by its colonial name of Burma, this month to allow U.S. companies to invest and provide financial services in the country as it emerges from nearly a half century of authoritarian rule.
U.S. lawmakers have been generally supportive of the administration's handling of the issue. They are expected to vote in coming days to renew a ban on imports from Myanmar for three years, along with authority for the White House to waive that if the country continues to make reforms.
Other U.S. sanctions include a ban on jewelry made with rubies and jade mined in Myanmar and a requirement the United States oppose loans to the country from lending institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Hormats said the United States was prepared to lift more of its sanctions in response to further moves by Myanmar, such as the freeing of more political prisoners.
But he declined to speculate how quickly the import ban could be lifted, even in the best-case scenario.
Ending the U.S. import ban would provide a badly needed source of employment in a relatively poor country suffering from a roughly 25 percent unemployment rate.
The United States imported $356.4 million of clothing and other goods from Myanmar in 2002, the last full year before the import ban was imposed.
Imports fell to $275.7 million in 2003 and have been zero in most years since then.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Philip Barbara)