WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States on Friday suspended its ban on imports from Myanmar before President Barack Obama's landmark visit to the country to reward its democratic reforms.
The State Department said it was another step in the normalization of bilateral economic relations with the former pariah state. Washington has already eased investment sanctions.
Obama is scheduled to visit the country also known as Burma on Monday, the first U.S. president to do so.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, an influential voice on Myanmar policy, commended Obama for making the trip. His comment Friday underscored how Myanmar is an area of bipartisan agreement transcending Washington's deep political divisions.
The waiving of the import ban, in place since 2003, is "intended to support the Burmese government's ongoing reform efforts and to encourage further change, as well as to offer new opportunities for Burmese and American businesses," a State Department statement said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in September that the U.S would be easing the restriction to reward the reformist government of President Thein Sein, who has shifted the country from five decades of ruinous military rule. He has released hundreds of political prisoners, including democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected to parliament in April.
The government and Suu Kyi have both expressed a desire for the import ban to be eased to help integrate Myanmar into the global economy, the statement said.
A ban on imports of gems — jadeite, rubies and jewelry containing them — will remain in place. The Treasury Department also added seven entities that U.S. companies are barred from doing business with because of links to violence, oppression and corrupt practices.
The newly sanctioned entities include front companies owned or controlled by Steven Law and Tay Za, both described as cronies of the former ruling junta. The State Department has said that Law and his father, Lo Hsing Han, have profited from the heroin trade. Tay Za is reportedly an associate of former military leader Than Shwe.
Myanmar activist groups have criticized the U.S. as being too hasty in rewarding Thein Sein's government. Despite Friday's waiver, the sanctions authority remains in place.
The U.S. is closely monitoring Myanmar's progress on reform, the State Department said. It cited concern about corruption, remaining political prisoners, Myanmar's continued military ties to North Korea and ethnic conflict.
"The ball is now clearly in the Burmese regime's court, and we call on them to respond with concrete action, by expeditiously releasing all remaining political prisoners, putting a firm end to ethnic violence and implementing constitutional reform," said Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y.