WASHINGTON D.C.—Military-dominated Burma’s international rehabilitation is getting another boost as its foreign minister meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday and looks for progress in US plans to ease economic sanctions.
Burma’s political reforms over the past year or so have seen it emerge from decades of diplomatic isolation, and Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin’s visit has intensified debate in Washington on how and at what pace the US should withdraw the sticks that have long punished the impoverished country for rights abuses and suppression of democracy.
Although the minister came to the State Department in September, it is his first meeting there with Clinton, and it is expected to be marked by the naming of first US ambassador to the country in more than 20 years.
The Obama administration announced back in January that it would normalize diplomatic relations with Burma. The current special envoy to the country, Derek Mitchell, is tipped to become ambassador.
More uncertainty surrounds the Obama administration’s plans—announced after democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to Parliament in April—to ease a ban on American investment in the country officially known as Myanmar. The restrictions, introduced in 1997, comes up for its annual renewal on Sunday.
The administration is expected to revise the ban. It has previously said it would allow targeted investment in Burma but has yet to spell out how that will be done and faces problems in untangling the myriad restrictions currently in place.
US businesses and some lawmakers are pushing for economic sanctions to be lifted and point to the European Union’s recent suspension of its restrictions, which could now leave American corporations at a competitive disadvantage—not least in the potentially lucrative oil, gas and mining sectors.
Human rights groups are concerned that the Obama administration is moving too fast to reward the reforms of President Thein Sein, despite the continuing detention of hundreds of political prisoners and ethnic violence.
Democrat Sen. Jim Webb, a longtime advocate of engagement with Burma who is among several senators who will meet with Wunna Maung Lwin, said the visit was an “appropriate time” to lift economic sanctions and said President Barack Obama has the executive authority to do so.
Republican Sen. John McCain has been a little less forthright and won a cautious endorsement on Tuesday from Suu Kyi, whose opinion is key to shaping US policy.
McCain said sanctions should be suspended while the US maintains restrictions against individuals and entities that violate human rights and “plunder the nation’s resources.” He said American companies should not do business with state-owned firms dominated by the military and should adhere to established standards of corporate responsibility.
The devil of such restrictions would be in the detail. If US companies were barred from working with state-owned enterprises like the country’s oil and gas company—which is currently not included on a US list of blacklisted Burma entities—that would effectively exclude them from the petroleum sector, where the previous military regime earned billions.
Human Rights Watch is demanding the imposition of binding rules on corporate responsibility for US companies working in Burma and revision of the blacklist that has not been updated for at least three years.
“Tough rules are needed to ensure that new investments benefit the people of Burma and don’t fuel human rights abuses and corruption, or end up strengthening the military’s control over civilian authorities,” John Sifton, the group’s Asia advocacy director, said in a statement.