As the United States begins allowing new investments in Myanmar for the first time in nearly 15 years, human rights activists charge that the step will fuel abuses instead of rewarding its steps toward reform.
The Obama administration eased financial and investment sanctions on Myanmar this week, praising the country for freeing hundreds of political prisoners and allowing the opposition to take part in elections.
The most stirring symbol of the change that has swept the long-isolated country is democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, formerly jailed as a dissident, now serving as a sitting member of parliament. But the country is still far from free, with the military still clashing with ethnic minorities and wielding remarkable power.
Letting U.S.companies do business in Myanmar “will set a model for responsible investment and business operations as well as encourage further change, promote economic development and contribute to the welfare of the Burmese people,” the State Department said in a statement.
The changes were cautious and calibrated, it argued. Companies are still barred from investing with the military and Defense Ministry, as well as a list of banned individuals. U.S. companies investing in Myanmar also will have to provide information on any human rights, corruption and environmental risks tied to their projects.
But human rights groups were appalled by the move, saying the Obama administration had failed to put in true safeguards to prevent U.S. investment from bankrolling abuses such as forcing villagers off their land to make way for pipelines or mines.
“We’re extremely disappointed,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “Whatever the U.S. corporations wanted, that’s what they went with.”
By allowing deals with the oil company, "the U.S. looks like it caved to industry pressure and undercut Aung San Suu Kyi and others in Burma who are promoting government accountability," Human Rights Watch business and human rights director Arvind Ganesan said in a blistering statement Wednesday.
Although companies are supposed to reveal any human rights and environmental risks tied to acquiring land for investment, there are no punishments for such abuses or for failing to report them at all, Quigley said. Though the reports could lay the groundwork for shaming companies into changing their ways, that rarely works with products that American consumers don’t buy directly, she said.
Human rights activists are now turning their focus to Congress, which decides annually on whether to ban products from being imported from Myanmar. Their hope is that although American companies may now be allowed to do business in Myanmar, their products will still be kept out of the U.S.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in pink, attends a session of parliament at Myanmar Lower House on Thursday in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Credit: Khin Maung Win / Associated Press