As Myanmar Threatens Clinton Legacy, Podesta Firm Works to Mend Image

Lobbying firm founded by Clinton campaign chair gets $840,000 to advance interests of repressive Asian nation

June 5, 2015

As Myanmar backslides into religious conflict, a lobbying firm founded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman is working to rehabilitate its image.

The Southeast Asian nation inked an $840,000 contract in March with the Podesta Group, founded by Clinton campaign chief John Podesta and his brother Tony. The firm will work to "strengthen the ties between … Myanmar and United States institutions," according to its contract.

That could involve meetings with members of Congress, the White House, reporters, and policy groups, according documents filed with the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

The liberalization of Myanmar was once seen as one of Secretary of State Clinton’s few success stories. However, recent humanitarian crises have drawn stern rebukes from top U.S. officials and human rights organizations.

The United Nations’ Human Rights division on Wednesday condemned the country’s government for jailing an activist who spoke out against state-sanctioned violence against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.

"Rather than prosecuting individuals, who brazenly call for the Rohingya to be killed, for hate speech and incitement to violence, the authorities have jailed a peaceful advocate who dared to question the misuse and manipulation of religion for extremist ends," the United Nations wrote.

Surrounding countries now face a refugee crisis as tens of thousands of Rohingya flee the country.

The government instituted laws in May that regulate when women in the country can have children. Critics have decried the laws as implicit efforts to target the country’s Muslim population.

"This law, which is rooted in discrimination and is likely to be implemented in a discriminatory fashion, provides a clear basis for the government to continue its targeted persecution of minority populations, including Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims," a Malaysian lawmaker told Bloomberg on Wednesday.

The Podesta Group did not respond to a request for additional information on its work for the government. Its contract comes at a crucial moment for firm’s founder: Myanmar could be an albatross for Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Correct the Record, a super PAC founded by Clinton supporter and Podesta ally David Brock, touts Myanmar as a success story for the former secretary of state.

Until recently, it looked like it would be. However, tensions between the country’s Buddhist government and Muslim and Christian minorities in the country have worsened since then, and some experts have warned of "Hillary’s Burma problem."

"Once you identify Burma and South Sudan as your achievements, you really put a kind of inconsequential sort of spin on your own legacy," Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official, told Politico last year.

"This is the problem. She can’t close anything out. All of these were works in progress and several of them really went south."

The Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation has also been active in Myanmar. The group facilitated a financial commitment from Proctor and Gamble to develop clean drinking water supplies in the country.

The foundation worked to promote business investments in the country by companies such as Ooredoo, a multinational telecommunications firm and Clinton Foundation donor that says that Myanmar "will undoubtedly become a key market" for the company.

Chelsea Clinton traveled to the country in her capacity as a foundation official, where she hailed efforts "to improve maternal and child health." New restrictions on child bearing in the country could cast a shadow over that work.

Some Clinton supporters have dismissed any political fallout. "I don’t know the long term odds of whether this effort [in Myanmar] will be successful," Tommy Vietor, the former spokesman for President Obama’s National Security Council, admitted last year.

"I do believe with 100 percent certainty that not a single voter will make their decision based on her policy towards Burma," Vietor told Foreign Policy. "You’ll be lucky if they know where the f*** it is."

The Clinton campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.