The U.S. on Monday suspended a formal trade tie with Burma two months after a military coup and the arrest of the country’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and others in her National League for Democracy party. The U.S. action comes after years of increasing agricultural trade with Burma amid warming relations between the two countries, but that progress is now threatened due to political unrest in the country.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the U.S. was ending its participation in the 2013 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with Burma. 

The military coup on Feb. 1 sparked a Civil Disobedience Movement, in which many people refused to work, and massive protests in the street that led to violent military responses.

“The United States strongly condemns the Burmese security forces’ brutal violence against civilians,” Tai said in a statement. “The killing of peaceful protestors, students, workers, labor leaders, medics, and children has shocked the conscience of the international community. These actions are a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the efforts of the Burmese people to achieve a peaceful and prosperous future.”

U.S. agricultural exports to Burma rose 80-fold over the past nine years, reaching about $167 million worth of soymeal, soybeans, distillers’ grains, wheat and other commodities in 2020, according to data from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).

Soymeal is now the largest commodity sold to Burma by the U.S. — exports were valued at $92.3 million in 2020 — but in 2011 there was no trade at all.

U.S. trade with Burma was beginning to suffer after the military coup, even before the USTR announcement Monday.

“While the first few days of the coup did not lead to large-scale disruptions in a stunned nation, the start of the Civil Disobedience Movement led to almost all import and export operations to be suspended on Feb. 5,” according to a recent FAS report. “The level of participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement has differed by Ministry, with some departments within the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation especially crippled by labor strikes, leading to severely delayed issuance of import and export documentation.”

Some importers are abandoning containers as the military tries to get operations running at ports, FAS said, and warned that the situation has created “vast uncertainties for U.S. agricultural exports to Burma.”

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Burma was one of the targets of a trade mission led by former USDA Trade Undersecretary Ted McKinney in 2019, and he tells Agri-Pulse he was struck by the potential of the country to expand its imports of U.S. ag commodities.

“It held great potential,” McKinney said Monday, but stressed that potential was always predicated on the country continuing to make reforms under a democratically elected civilian government.

Now, FAS is warning that it is “essential that U.S. companies that are planning shipments to Burma in the near term remain informed of the evolving situation by staying in very close communication with their respective Burmese importers and distributors.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated the U.S. had cut all trade ties with Burma. The story has been updated to reflect that the U.S. has suspended its participation in the 2013 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with Burma.

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