U.S. investors cautioned to take care
International economic sanctions have been eased and American businesses are leading the charge to set up shop in Burma. But the Obama administration wants the business leaders to consider more than just making money as a more open Burma risks exposing more of its population to human trafficking and exploitation.
Google, Coca-Cola, Ford, General Electric, Chevron, FedEx, Cargill, General Motors, and Goldman Sachs topped the largest-ever U.S. trade mission to Burma in recent days.
Meeting with business leaders in Cambodia ahead of their trip, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged them “to invest and to do it responsibly,” saying American firms should be agents of positive change, good corporate citizens and doing business transparently.
In Siem Reap, Clinton also met with Burmese President Thein Sein, who appeared far more relaxed than during their first face-to-face in December. U.S. officials say the former general was more animated and confident, speaking of the need for better telecommunications and stronger health care.
U.S. Burma relations more relaxed
“When the new government started to assume state responsibilities, many looked upon us with suspicion and uncertainties,” President Thein Sein told the business leaders. “With the passage of time and because of our transparency and genuine goodwill efforts, we have started to enjoy the support of many nations.”
Nick Baird, the British foreign investment chief, says that support can help keep Burma on the right track. “It’s not just economic,” he says. “Working together in an open and transparent and responsible business way will actually help the stability of this country.”
Even under the looser U.S. sanctions, firms investing more than $500,000 are required to detail their human rights and anti-corruption policies. American energy firms working with state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas have to notify Washington of those investments within 60 days.
Child exploitation is a challenge
One of the biggest challenges in a country where more than 30 percent of people live in poverty is child exploitation, especially with Burma’s startling pace of change.
“If government opens up as it said democratically, then obviously it opens up for everything,” says UNICEF country representative Ramesh Shrestha. “That would mean the existing tight control of the situation might be loosened up. That would mean people would do what they want to do. This could be legal or illegal, all these things could happen. There are many risks.”
The U.S. State Department report on human trafficking says thousands of children have been forced into commercial sex, militias, or labor both in Burma and in neighboring countries. But it also says President Thein Sein’s government is making progress.
“You have your ups and you have your downs,” says Jesse Eaves, senior policy advisor for child protection at the aid group, World Vision. “I think what’s important is what positive steps are being made. We’ve seen countries like Burma starting to really take a look at what is happening in its own borders, what is happening to their citizens and trying to take the proper response to it.”
World Vision is raising awareness about human trafficking and child exploitation in Burma by working with survivors to speak out.
“It’s amazing the change that you can see just by addressing the issue, by bringing it out in the open and shining a light on it,” Eaves says. “I think the biggest problem we see is that most people don’t know what it is that they’re looking at. They may just think ‘This is normal. This is what we’ve always done.’ But then once you shine a light on it and say, ‘Actually, this is exploitation. This is slavery,’ it takes on a very different light.”
The new U.S. ambassador to Burma, Derek Mitchell, says “the key is to keep moving in the right direction and move step by step: transparency, accountability, openness, and then having partners, inside the country but also outside the country, to work together to try to get to the right place.”