US allows companies to invest in Myanmar | News | DW | 12.07.2012
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US allows companies to invest in Myanmar

The Obama administration has given American companies the green light to invest in Myanmar, including in gas and oil. It’s the most significant easing of sanctions yet against the former pariah state.

Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) welcomed the United States' decision to allow companies to invest in Myanmar on Thursday, while calling for the state oil company to adhere to international transparency standards.

Suu Kyi played down Washington's decision to lift its ban on corporate investment as "nothing significant." But she called on the US to ensure that the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) adopts international standards of conduct.

"What I said was they should ask MOGE to have transparency, I don't know whether they asked or not," Suu Kyi told the AFP news agency.

An NDL party spokesman welcomed the US move.

"There is nothing to be disappointed about," Nyan Win told AFP in response to the US decision, adding that Washington "did what they should do."

Investment ban lifted

President Barack Obama had announced on Wednesday that a ban on investment in Myanmar and export of financial services was to be eased in recognition of the governments continued commitment to democratic reform.

"Today, the United States is easing restrictions to allow US companies to responsibly do business in Burma," Obama said in a statement.

"President Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma continue to make significant progress along the path to democracy, and the government has continued to make important economic and political reforms."

Reform-minded President Thein Sein has introduced a swathe of democratic measures in the nation, which has been dominated by the military since 1962. The reforms have allowed Suu Kyi to win a seat in parliament after 15 years of house arrest.

But Obama has been under pressure from US companies to end restrictions on investment. They had expressed fears over losing out to foreign competitors who have access to Myanmar's potentially lucrative energy resources.

Condemned by rights groups

Nevertheless, the Obama administration has come under fire from human rights groups, who until recently had supported its policies toward Myanmar.

"By allowing deals with Burma's state-owned oil company, the US looks like it caved to industry pressure and undercut Aung San Suu Kyi and others in Burma who are promoting government accountability," said Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile Aung Din of the US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based activist group, said the decision was rewarding institutions that had committed serious human rights violations in a country torn by decades of conflict.

epa03301235 Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (C) talks as she registers the attendance record at the Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house parliament) in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 09 July 2012. It marked Aung San Suu Kyi's debut in parliament as opposition leader. EPA/NYEIN CHAN NAING

Suu Kyi is now a member of Myanmar's parliament after years of house arrest

It "will be appreciated by the Burmese generals, cronies and U.S. corporations, but not by the people of Burma," he said.

However, the US Chamber of Commerce's vice president of international affairs, John Murphy, commended the move. He noted that many major economies, including Australia, Canada, and the European Union, had taken action ahead of the United States to roll back sanctions.

"It's a false choice to say we have to choose between human rights and business interests in Burma," he said in a statement. "Ensuring US companies have a strong presence in Burma will help raise labor and environmental practices and corporate social responsibility."

Investment stipulations

Under the new rules, US companies that wish to invest more than $500,000 (408,552 euros) will be required to file an annual report to the State Department disclosing their procedures on human rights, workers' rights, the environment, land acquisitions and payments to Myanmar government elites.

They will also have to notify the State Department within 60 days if they plan to go into business with the MOGE.

Obama also stipulated that the United States would continue to ban investment in companies owned by the defense ministry or armed groups.

"This order is a clear message to Burmese government and military officials: those individuals who continue to engage in abusive, corrupt, or destabilizing behavior going forward will not reap the rewards of reform," he said.

In addition, he issued sanctions on Myanmar's Directorate of Defense Industries over its 2008 agreement with North Korea on missile development.

Obama's announcement came hours after the arrival of Derek Mitchell, the first US ambassador to the country in 22 years.

ccp/slk (AFP, AP)