The U.S. Senate Tuesday overwhelmingly voted (97 to one) to renew a ban on the import of Burmese products to the United States. The measure, which the House of Representatives passed last month, now goes to President Bush for his signature.
Senators voted to renew the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act for another year. The measure is aimed at pressing Burma to improve its human rights record, and in particular, release all political prisoners, including democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, is a co-sponsor.
"The situation in Burma grows ever dimmer. The military junta in that country controls the population through a campaign of violence and terror. The lack of freedom and justice there is simply appalling. The Burmese regime has murdered political opponents, used child soldiers and forced labor, and used rape as a weapon of war. Political activists remain imprisoned, including elected members of parliament, and last month, that courageous woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, celebrated her 60th birthday in captivity."
The measure was first passed by Congress in 2003, and renewal required annual congressional approval for three years. Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, noted that the U.S. ban on Burmese imports has caused a number of Burmese garment factories to close, forcing tens of thousands of workers, mostly women, to lose their jobs.
Although the garment industry has to some extent rebounded, sustained by new orders from Canada, Europe and Latin America, Mr. Baucus suggested that Congress think twice about imposing another import ban next year when the current measure expires.
"Boycotting Burmese imports allows us to express our collective disapproval of the awful regime in Burma. But I hope my colleagues will take a moment to consider whether a boycott is the best thing for the Burmese people."
But Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, defended the import ban, and took issue with countries in the region that have a policy of constructive engagement with the military government in Rangoon.
The Senate action comes a week before a meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of South East Asian Nations is to take place in Laos, where a decision will be made on whether to allow Burma to assume the group's chairmanship. The United States and the European Union, both key trading partners of ASEAN, have vowed to boycott the organization's meetings if Burma is chairman.
Senator McConnell said, "It is simply unacceptable for ASEAN to meet in Rangoon while this regime is in power and Suu Kyi is in jail."
In its annual human rights report, the U.S. State Department said, in its words, Burma's "extremely poor human rights record worsened" last year.