May 2, 2012

US firms call for end to sanctions on Myanmar

Fearing they will be left out of a growing economy, U.S. companies are calling for an end to sanctions on Myanmar but are facing a cool reception from policymakers and human rights groups.
U.S. firms had long been shy about openly seeking to enter the resource-rich nation — a perennial top violator of human rights on annual lists — and the few companies that do business there have faced a backlash from activists.
But Myanmar has embarked on reforms over the past year that have surprised even critics, leading the European Union and Canada to suspend most sanctions and Japan to step up assistance. China already has an outsized role in Myanmar's economy after two decades of Western sanctions.
In a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, leading U.S. business groups urged his administration to go beyond announced plans for a limited easing of sanctions such as allowing U.S. credit cards in the country formerly known as Burma.
“Permitting certain U.S. sectors to invest while excluding others will not prevent those sectors from being developed in Burma,” said the letter signed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council among other groups.
“It will simply ensure that our competitors fill the void, as they are already doing, and that jobs which could be given to American workers will go to workers in Asia and elsewhere,” they wrote.
Clay Thompson, director of corporate government affairs at Caterpillar Inc., said that the U.S. equipment giant expected strong growth as Myanmar builds its infrastructure.

Thompson said Caterpillar had essentially ceded business to Chinese competitors, even though the U.S. company supported restrictions on dealing with specific people or businesses blacklisted for wrongdoing by the Treasury Department.
“We're coming to the view — along with, I think, several important voices in the U.S. government — that at this point the sanctions are impeding the reform rather than driving it,” Thompson told AFP.
“What reformers in the country now really need is economic growth, which will certainly come if U.S. companies are allowed to provide financial services and invest there,” he said.
The Obama administration has been at the forefront of diplomacy on Myanmar, entering talks in 2009 aimed at ending the country's long isolation.
Since taking office a year ago, President Thein Sein has freed prisoners, opened dialog with rivals and allowed an election that gave democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi a seat in parliament after years under house arrest.
Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, recently told Congress that the United States needed to maintain “leverage” to press for further actions, such as pressing the military to end ethnic violence.
While saying that US firms had the “right values” and governance to promote reform, Campbell said that the administration wanted to move in a “careful” way and did not plan a full-scale lifting of sanctions.
In their own letter to Obama, rights groups including Human Rights Watch and the AFL-CIO, the leading US labor confederation, backed “the broad position” of the administration but voiced fear it would move too quickly.
The groups said that each step in easing sanctions should be linked to measurable progress on goals, including the release of remaining political prisoners, the end of abuses in ethnic-minority areas, and the fairness of elections due in 2015.

Source: The China Post