Burma: Open for Business

Human rights advocates criticize Obama administration for lifting investment ban

• July 11, 2012 5:36 pm


A coalition of human rights groups have expressed concern over the Obama administration’s decision Wednesday to lift an investment ban on Burma, a fledgling democracy routinely cited for human rights violations.

Despite objections from Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Burmese opposition leader, Obama eased sanctions preventing investments in the lucrative Burmese energy sector.

"The United States is easing restrictions to allow U.S. companies to responsibly do business in Burma," the president said in a statement, citing the turbulent country’s march towards democracy as the reason for lifting sanctions. "President Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma continue to make significant progress along the path to democracy, and the government has continued to make important economic and political reforms. Easing sanctions is a strong signal of our support for reform, and will provide immediate incentives for reformers and significant benefits to the people of Burma."

Multiple human rights organizations—including Freedom House, the U.S. Campaign for Burma, Physicians for Human Rights, and United to End Genocide—jointly slammed Obama’s move, chiding the administration for empowering a "corrupt" regime and encouraging further human rights abuses.

"We express grave concern regarding the U.S. government’s decision to allow investments into businesses connected to the Burmese regime that are corrupt and help to fuel human rights violations," the organizations wrote in a rare joint statement. "As it stands now, investment in many of the most attractive sectors of the Burmese economy is likely to worsen the human rights situation while directly benefitting individuals and entities responsible for rights abuses, who contribute to corruption, or are otherwise acting to obstruct political reform."

The organizations, which have unsuccessfully appealed to the president in the past, said that the Obama administration is sending inconsistent signals in what it termed a poorly thought out strategy.

"The U.S. government has acknowledged that there are many unacceptable business partners in Burma. However, the government has failed in its responsibility to clarify who these actors are, or to prohibit U.S. companies from conducting business with these problematic entities," the group said. "The Obama administration’s decision-making process has lurched forward without careful thought, strategy or transparency. What little progress has been accomplished in Burma—as well as the prospects for lasting peace, human rights and democracy—is being undermined by failures in U.S. decision-making."

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other human rights observers have been particularly wary of Burma’s government-controlled energy sector.

"Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.), cautioned the administration to go slow and issue only a partial repeal of the investment ban," Josh Rogin reported in Foreign Policy. "They especially wanted the administration to retain bans on U.S. companies working with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) the state controlled entity through which all energy sector business flows, which they say is still heavily influenced by the Burmese military."

As the administration considered its new policy, the Burmese military nominated as its vice president Gen. Myint Swe, a violent military leader who is also known as the "Butcher of Rangoon."

In at least one publicly available video, Swe’s troops can allegedly be seen engaging in violent behavior, as well as the murder of Japanese reporter, Kenji Nagai. Swe is additionally viewed as responsible for ordering a bloody crackdown on monks during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, in which citizens demonstrated against the authoritarian Burmese government.

The election of Swe raises questions about the Burmese government’s commitment to reforming, as well as the Obama administration’s decision to grant it profitable political favors.

Published under: Obama Administration, Sanctions