RANGOON — Aung San Suu Kyi has joined a chorus of local critics to pan the government’s decision to retain Podesta Group in an effort to overhaul its image, as a senior member of President Thein Sein’s retinue admitted that the lobbying firm has been charged with ending United States sanctions against Burma.
The Washington-based firm has been hired on a yearlong contract for $840,000, plus business-class travel and luxury accommodation expenses, according to tax disclosures lodged for an agreement signed by Podesta Group CEO Kimberly Fritts and Kyaw Myo Htut, the Burmese ambassador to the United States.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia earlier this week, the National League for Democracy chairwoman said that the government living up to the country’s expectations would not need a public relations team.
“I’m interested to know the motive behind it. [The government] said they hired the group to lobby for them,” she said. “To lobby for what? The responsibility of the government is to serve the interests of its citizens. If it can fulfill this duty, why bother to hire such a group?”
Presidential advisor Ko Ko Hlaing said that he hoped that hiring Podesta would help the government, citizens and media of the US gain more of an understanding of Burma and the activities of its government, which was important while the US maintained sanctions against local individuals and business concerns.
“The reason is simple,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The US is the world’s biggest power. Although it has reduced sanctions against our country, they have not been totally lifted. So, there remains obstacles to our reform process even though the process is doing better than in the past.”
“If the reforms take shape quickly and the US also has a better understanding of us, it would bring greater benefits to our people,” he added. “Compared to the US, the European Union practices a less strict policy towards Burma. It lifted sanctions earlier than the US. The US is the key country. That is why we target the US.”
Ko Ko Hlaing said that the amount the government will pay to the Podesta Group is comparatively small, and the practice of hiring lobbyists to improve bilateral relations is not unusual among countries.
Indeed, the Podesta Group has provided public relations services to a number of foreign governments in need of an image makeover and a voice in Washington circles. Its client roster includes the governments of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, in the months before popular protests culminated in his ouster last year, former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who tasked the firm with facilitating the sale of arms, and former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, for which the firm was accused of planting stories to smear Berisha’s political opponents.
Earlier Burmese governments also hired public relations firms in an effort to improve their image. The Military Intelligence department of the former military regime hired several PR firms, including Bain and Associates, Jefferson Waterman International and DCI Associates, after the Clinton administration introduced economic sanctions against Burma in 1996, in the wake of a global outcry against human rights violations in the country. Cronies close to the junta reportedly paid for the services at the time.
Established in 1987 by brothers John and Tony Podesta, and closely associated with the US Democratic Party, the Podesta Group has represented some of the world’s largest corporations. Five of the world’s six biggest defense contractors by revenue, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing and BAE Systems amongst others, have recently used the Podesta Group’s lobbying services. The firm also represented British Petroleum in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
John Podesta, a former White House counselor to President Barack Obama and chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, has recently been appointed chair of the 2016 presidential campaign for Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton.
Additional reporting by Sean Gleeson.