The rare Washington consensus behind the policy of US President Barack Obama administration toward Myanmar is showing signs of cracks as US businesses grow impatient to invest there and human rights groups push back.
In an unusual move, a Democratic senator last week criticized Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a figure revered by both US political parties and key to bipartisan support for administration policy. During a recent trip to Europe, she cautioned against foreign companies entering business deals with Myanmar’s opaque state and gas enterprise. A prominent Republican echoed her concerns.
Those differences underscore how the administration’s job of keeping broad-based support for its Myanmar policy is getting more tricky.
The debate is playing out while explosions of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanmar leave scores dead, and the country’s military continues to clash with ethnic rebels in the remote north — reminders that human rights concerns still loom large.
Broadly, the rare political unity that has coalesced on the administration’s Myanmar policy endures. Both Democrats and Republicans back the easing of sanctions to encourage further reforms, and the Senate on Friday approved the appointment of Derek Mitchell as the first US ambassador to be based in the country in 22 years. Mitchell has served as a special envoy since August last year.
However, even within the administration, there are differences of opinion on how to allow US investment without feeding corruption and further entrenching Myanmar’s military-linked business elite.
For US corporations, time is of the essence. European companies are already free to operate in Myanmar, and within two or three months its government will open bidding on 18 onshore oil and gas blocks — an opportunity for Western firms to move in on a lucrative sector where China, India and Thailand dominate.
The US Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses and is a powerful lobbying force in Washington, is urging the administration to get going. The chamber has expressed disappointment that seven weeks after US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged US businesses to invest in Myanmar, the administration has yet to issue the necessary regulations.
Democratic Senator Jim Webb is a longtime advocate of engagement with Myanmar and has teamed up with a conservative Republican to press for a comprehensive lifting of economic sanctions. Webb chided Aung San Suu Kyi last week, asking whether “an official from any foreign government should be telling us what sectors that we should invest in and not invest in.” It was highly unusual criticism directed at a Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent 15 years under house arrest before she was elected to parliament in April.
On the other hand, Republican Senator John McCain has endorsed Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments, saying her concerns over the lack of accountability and transparency in the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise must be addressed before letting US companies invest in that sector.
“We must prioritize our democratic principles,” McCain said in a statement.
Rights groups say the administration is now prioritizing US commercial interests instead.
“Suddenly there are new objectives competing with the old ones that formed the heart of Burma policy for so many years,” said Tom Malinowski, director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. “This is about helping US companies not miss out on the natural gas blocks to be auctioned off in the next few months.”
Judging from US officials’ public statements, there has been a marked shift in recent months, despite the administration’s continued statements of concern over ethnic violence, political prisoners and Myanmar’s military ties with North Korea.
In early April, when the US announced a “targeted” easing of the investment ban, officials initially spoke of promoting investment in sectors like agriculture, telecommunications and tourism, rather than resource-based industries. However, by the time Clinton gave the details six weeks later, she was inviting US businesses to invest across all sectors of the economy, including oil, gas and mining.