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Putting Dollars Ahead of Human Rights

Human rights advocates alarmed about Obama admin stance on human rights

Thein Sein, Barack Obama / AP
• May 24, 2013 3:45 pm

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Burmese human rights advocates are alarmed by reports that the White House may have advocated for the Burma-based business interests of a former State Department official during President Barack Obama’s meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein earlier this week.

Senior White House officials were reportedly briefed on a consortium of American companies—including a firm owned by former East Asian and Pacific Affairs assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell—vying for an airport operation bid in Yangon, Foreign Policy reported earlier this week. The White House was expected to raise the issue during Monday’s bilateral meeting.

Campbell was instrumental in implementing the Obama administration’s Burma policy, including the easing of U.S. sanctions. He left the State Department to found a private consulting firm called the Asia Group last February. The Asia Group announced it was joining a consortium of American firms competing for a contract to modernize the Yangon International Airport one month later.

Burmese human rights advocates, who believe the sanctions were rolled back too hastily and without enough progress from the Burmese government, said they were disturbed by reports that the White House would advocate for a former U.S. official’s business interests during Thein Sein’s visit.

"For Kurt Campbell, when he was assistant secretary, economic interests were more of a priority than solving Burma’s more long-term [human rights problems]," said Jennifer Quigley of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

"Now we’re seeing that President Obama and Kurt Campbell, that their ultimate policy guidance is based on their own economic interest and not in what is the best interest for the people of that country," added Quigley. "We’ve basically sold away any moral authority in the world."

Kelley Currie, a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, said she was concerned about the prospect of the administration lobbying for a private business interest in Burma.

"I think the most problematic thing is for the United States to be advocating on behalf of a company that’s participating on behalf of a procurement process at the same time we’re trying to get the Burmese to have a more transparent process for these [dealings]," said Currie.

Former U.S. officials need to be cautious about the perception that they may be profiting off of policies they helped put in place, she said.

"I think that in their dealings with Burma, the current and former officials of the U.S. government need to be above reproach and need to be extremely aware of the messages they’re sending with their involvement, whether it’s in business projects or other activities," said Currie.

Activists say the Obama administration has rushed to open relations with Burma without insisting on enough concrete reforms in return. They note that minorities, particularly Muslims, are still being targeted by the country’s military with either implicit or explicit support from the government.

The White House declined to comment on whether Obama brought up the Yangon International Airport bid during Monday's bilateral meeting. A White House spokesperson said she could provide "no additional information" outside of Obama's public comments during a press conference following the meeting.

Campbell’s firm did not respond to requests for comment.