November 16, 2012 / 8:46 PM / 5 years ago

UPDATE 2-US eases import ban on Myanmar ahead of Obama trip

By Anna Yukhananov

WASHINGTON, Nov 16 (Reuters) - The United States said on Friday it will allow imports from Myanmar for the first time in nearly a decade, a move that could boost the struggling economy in the former pariah state.

The announcement came just a day before President Barack Obama departs on a trip to Asia that will include a historic stop in the resource-rich country.

The easing of trade restrictions marks another step in the improvement of relations between the two countries and could give a political boost to the former general now leading changes in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"Today's joint actions ... are intended to support the Burmese government's ongoing reform efforts and to encourage further change," the U.S. government said in a statement on Friday.

Obama plans to arrive in Myanmar on Monday. It will be the first time a U.S. president has visited the country, where a military junta ceded power to a semi-civilian government last year.

The new government has launched rapid reforms, including an overhaul of the economy, an easing of censorship, the legalization of trade unions and protests, and the freeing of political prisoners.

"We urge the Burmese government to continue this progress," the U.S. statement said.

While human rights groups urge Obama to press Myanmar's military to cede more authority in the country, the president's aides have said his visit could help lock in political reforms and encourage more.

They say the trip could serve as an example to countries such as North Korea that the United States would engage with former foes if they reform.

On Friday, the U.S. government issued a waiver and general license to ease the ban on the import of most goods from Myanmar, although it will not cover jadeite and ruby imports.

U.S. officials said the Myanmar government had asked for looser restrictions in order to help their country integrate into the global economy.

Ending the U.S. import ban would provide a badly needed economic boost in Myanmar, where the unemployment rate is about 25 percent.

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.

U.S. companies are allowed to export to Myanmar and last year shipments increased about fivefold to $48 million. By comparison, to two-way U.S. trade with Myanmar's neighbor Thailand was nearly $36 billion in 2011.

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