US Business Community Asks Obama Administration to Ease Burma Sanctions

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 4 March 2016

RANGOON — Five American trade groups called for the US government to ease sanctions on Burma last month, a move which has been met with praise by the Burmese business community.

On February 18, the American Chamber of Commerce Myanmar, National Foreign Trade Council, US-ASEAN Business Council, United States Chambers of Commerce, and United States Council of International Business sent a letter to various US State Departments asking the government to relax sanctions in an effort to improve the relationship between Burma and the US.

In the letter, members of the US business community supported Obama’s engagement in Burma thus far, including lifting import bans, easing finance and investment bans, opening a USAID office, and extending both OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation) and Export-Import Bank support.

The letter also pointed to the positive election results in November—in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a vast majority of parliamentary seats—and called for an advancement of the normalization process.

In mid February, Burma’s vice president Nyan Tun also asked the Obama administration to lift the US sanctions on Burma at a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders in California. Nyan Tun said that although the US had given economic support to other ASEAN countries, Burma had received little developmental assistance because of the sanctions.

American sanctions on Burma were initiated in 1997 when the country was under military rule. It was not until 2012 that the United States restored diplomatic ties with Burma, one year after Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government came to power.

While economic sanctions have since been eased for some sectors and individuals, many businesspeople remain on the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list of people with whom US citizens are barred from doing business. In May, the SDN list is expected to be renewed.

Dr. Maung Maung Lay, vice chairman of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce Industry (UMFCCI) said he feels that the SDN list hinders investment in the country.

“Financial transactions between the US and Myanmar are difficult,” he said. “Many US businessmen want to invest here. US banks don’t want to incur the risks.”

US investment in Burma remains relatively low, but some major American brands such as Coca-Cola, Gap and KFC have already broken ground in the country.

Khin Shwe, former upper house lawmaker and chairman of Zaykabar Group of Companies told the Irrawaddy that he is positive that US sanctions will be lifted this year after the new NLD government assumes power in April.

Since last year, the UMFCCI has been urging the US government to re-examine the sanctions list and remove some companies and individuals. This, the body argues, would create a level playing field in Burma for US companies with otherwise limited business power.