US eases import ban on Myanmar ahead of Obama trip

The change can help Myanmar join in the global economy.

WASHINGTON - 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 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 America's rapprochement with the fast-reforming country, 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. Treasury and State departments said in a joint statement on Friday.

Obama plans to arrive in Myanmar on Monday. White House officials said this week he will press the country's leaders to restore calm to the western part of their country and bring instigators of ethnic violence there to justice.

Some human rights groups have opposed the trip. Obama aides have said it could help lock in political reforms and encourage more, while serving 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 most goods, 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, which suffers 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.

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