Some Rights Groups Skeptical About US Easing of Burma Sanctions

Posted July 12th, 2012 at 6:25 am (UTC-5)
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Some rights groups are reacting with skepticism to the United States' decision to formally lift economic sanctions against Burma.

On Wednesday, Washington announced it was allowing U.S. companies to invest in the Southeast Asian nation for the first time in 15 years, in response to economic and political reforms underway there.

The move does not allow business dealings with Burma's military and industries controlled by the Ministry of Defense. It also requires American businesses to submit detailed reports on their dealings with Burma.

But many are not happy the decision was made, despite objections from democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel laureate has warned against allowing international investment in Burma's lucrative energy sector that for years propped up the country's former oppressive military government.

Lisa Misol of New York-based Human Rights Watch tells VOA it is premature to allow business deals with Burma's state-owned oil company, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), until it becomes more accountable and transparent.

“[Aung San Suu Kyi's] concern, and the concern of many people in Burma is that the money will help to fuel the military's control of power; because historically, the oil and gas sector has really benefited the military and not the people of Burma, and there aren't measures in place to prevent that from happening now.”

Jennifer Quigley of the U.S. Campaign for Burma agrees. She tells VOA the disclosure requirements put in place by the deal are not tough enough, calling them “practically voluntary.” She says this a “missed opportunity” on behalf of the Obama administration.

“Without any of the foreign governments putting requirements on their companies to make sure they seek out and empower the people in Burma who have been downtrodden and oppressed and suppressed by the Burmese regime, all that foreign investment is going to wind up doing is entrenching the oligarchical system that is already in place in Burma.”

Another observer, Sean Turnell, a Burma analyst at Australia's Macquarie University Business and Economics faculty, says he understands the reluctance to allow investment in the energy sector. But he tells VOA the new initiative does attempt to hold U.S. firms accountable for their investments.

“If they invest more than $500,000, they have to make an annual statement to the State Department. And, they have to likewise report any payment to Burma state entities above $10,000, and any involvement at all with the gas sector, in particular with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.”

Former Burmese lawmaker Bo Hla Tint, a one-time foreign minister of the U.S.-based Burma government-in-exile, is taking a wait-and-see approach. He says he wants the Obama administration to monitor the new initiative closely, saying reformist President Thein Sein still has “a long way to go.”

“Until Burma becomes a real democratically free country, we want the international community, including the United States, to be very careful.”

In announcing the deal Wednesday, President Obama also voiced caution, saying Burma's political and economic reforms are still not finished. He says the United States remains “deeply concerned” about the lack of transparency in Burma's investment environment.

But Mr. Obama also hailed the “significant” progress made by reformist President Thein Sein, who on Thursday called for the West to lift all sanctions against his country as he attempts to carry out a “second wave” of reforms focused on Burma's struggling economy.