WASHINGTON, Dec 19 (Reuters) - The Senate unanimously approved a bill on Wednesday blocking imports of Myanmar rubies and timber, and lawmakers stepped up calls for a U.N. arms embargo on the military-ruled Southeast Asian country.
The Burma Democracy Promotion Act of 2007, the Senate’s version of a similar sanctions package that passed the House of Representatives on Dec. 11, was sparked by Myanmar’s bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in September.
“Perhaps the action taken by the Senate today will spur the U.N. Security Council to take action of its own, in the form of an arms embargo against the Burmese regime,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a co-sponsor of the bill.
The bill must be signed by President George W. Bush in order to become law.
Co-sponsor Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a Democratic presidential candidate, said the United States “will work tirelessly with the international community” to press Myanmar’s military rulers to begin a transition to democratic rule.
The amendment to U.S. trade sanctions imposed in 2003 bans the import of Myanmar gems and timber into the United States, freezes the assets of the country’s leaders and stops the former Burma from using U.S. financial institutions via third countries to launder funds of its leaders or close relatives.
The House version of the bill that passed last week would stop Chevron Corp (CVX.N) from taking tax deductions on its investment in Myanmar’s Yadana natural gas field. Chevron responded by saying its Myanmar project promotes economic and community development in a poor region.
The Senate version does not include the Chevron measures and the two pieces of legislation will require further negotiations to harmonize them, a Senate staffer said.
The Senate version of the bill also creates a special coordinator at the State Department to coordinate U.S. policy toward the Myanmar junta.
Myanmar earns some $300 million a year from sales of rubies and has circumvented American sanctions in the past by routing the precious stones through China, India and Thailand.
“The (Senate) move marks a break from the past because it closes key loopholes in U.S, policy,” said Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based democracy advocacy group.
Targeted sanctions against the military rulers were necessary to bring pressure on the regime to agree to a dialogue with incarcerated democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, he said in a statement.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won elections in 1990, but the army refused to hand over power and has detained the Nobel Peace laureate for most of the time since then.
Aung Din, an exiled student leader of pro-democracy protests in 1988 that were also violently crushed, echoed McConnell’s calls for a U.N. embargo on arms sales to Myanmar, whose weapons mostly come from powerful backer China.
A bipartisan group of 48 Senators wrote Bush this week urging him to push for an international arms embargo against the ruling military junta in Myanmar.
U.S. first lady Laura Bush, an outspoken critic of Myanmar’s military rulers, on Tuesday condemned the junta, saying they had failed to take any meaningful steps to address international concerns on human rights.
A recent U.N. report said the September crackdown on Buddhist monk-led protests killed 31 people. Burmese exiles put the death toll at more than 100, including monks who were beaten to death in the devoutly Buddhist nation. (Editing by Xavier Briand)