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US relaxes Myanmar import ban, lynchpin of financial sanctions

NEW YORK -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday the U.S. will ease its import ban on Myanmar that had been a key plank of remaining American economic sanctions.

“In recognition of the continued progress toward reform and in response to requests from both the government and the opposition, the United States is taking the next step in normalizing our commercial relationship,” Clinton said during a meeting with President Thein Sein on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

“We will begin the progress of easing restrictions on imports of Burmese goods into the United States,” Clinton said. “We hope this will provide more opportunities for your people to sell their goods into our market.”

The announcement follows the Obama administration's resumption of normal diplomatic relations and the suspension of a U.S. investment ban.

“We are very grateful for the actions of the United States,” Thein Sein said.

Wednesday's third ever face-to-face between Clinton and Thein Sein was warm, a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the private meeting. It began with the Myanmar leader handing Clinton a letter to President Barack Obama.

Clinton offered U.S. help in Myanmar's efforts for peace with its different ethnic minorities and in clearing mines from the country. She urged the end of Myanmar's military relations with North Korea.

Even before the import ban was adopted more than a decade ago, U.S. imports from Myanmar were exceedingly small. Some trade existed in hardwood, gems and garments, the official said. As the sanctions are now eased, specific companies will still be subject to U.S. sanctions so that increased trade doesn't reward corruption or poor ethical standards.

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is on a landmark U.S. visit that coincides with the president's visit, last week voiced support for the step, saying Myanmar should not depend on the U.S. to keep up its momentum for democracy. For years she advocated sanctions as a way of putting political pressure on the then-ruling junta.

The Myanmar opposition leader is revered by both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, and her endorsement is a key guide for U.S. policymakers.

In August, Congress renewed sanctions legislation, but allowing Obama to waive its provisions. Wednesday's announcement on the import ban begins that process. Easing the ban also requires the issuance of a Treasury license.

“We will continue consulting with Congress and other relevant stakeholders about additional steps, while at the same time working with you and supporting those who are hoping that the reform will be permanent and the progress will continue,” Clinton said.

The Obama administration has been at pains to not let Nobel winner Suu Kyi's high-profile U.S. trip overshadow Thein Sein, who still faces opposition within Myanmar's military to political reform.

The Myanmar president is due to address the General Assembly on Thursday, and he is not expected to cross paths with Suu Kyi, who is scheduled to leave New York late Wednesday.

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