Burma

Trade and Investment Key Issues During Thein Sein’s US Visit

By Simon Roughneen 21 May 2013

Rangoon—The first state visit to the United States by a Burmese president in almost 50 years went off largely as expected, with a strong emphasis on trade and investment, and some discussions of the ethnic and religious violence that has clouded the country’s transition from army rule.

US President Barack Obama promised American backing for the Burma government’s reforms, which he described as a work in progress, saying, “As President [Thein] Sein is the first to admit, this is a long journey and there is still much work to be done.”

Ahead of the Burmese President’s trip to Washington, it was widely expected that economic issues would be central to his visit.

William Aung, director at Thura Swiss, a Rangoon-based business consultancy, says that the trip panned out as expected. “U Thein Sein would ask Obama about technical, financial assistance and request US companies to invest in Myanmar,” he told The Irrawaddy.

President Thein Sein told his American audience that “we need maximum international support, including from the United States, to train and educate, share knowledge, trade and invest, and encourage others to do the same.”

It appears the Americans were listening. At a dinner hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and attended by Thein Sein, General Electric announced the imminent opening of two offices in Burma: one in the commercial capital and biggest city Rangoon, and one in administrative capital Naypyidaw.

Separately, the Myanmar-United States Trade Council announced that it has established offices in Washington DC, New York City, and in Rangoon, saying that the body will promote bilateral trade and investment and push for the removal of the remaining US government sanctions on Burma.

The sanctions were imposed during military rule in Burma, but were partially suspended last year after Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian government began introducing political and socio-economic reforms in 2011.

“We are trying hard to end Myanmar’s isolation, see the removal of all sanctions, and make the contributions we can to both regional and global security and development,” Thein Sein told an audience at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

However, human rights groups argue that sanctions should be retained, as draconian laws remain in place in Burma and because the Burmese Army is implicated in numerous abuses in the country’s ethnic minority areas.

Thein Sein told the university audience that he hopes to soon reach a ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army, which has fought the Burmese Army across the mountainous northern Kachin region after the ethnic conflict flared up in June 2011.

The fighting has left hundreds dead and displaced upwards of 100,000 civilians, who now live in scattered camps along the Burma-China border. The latest round of ceasefire talks between the sides are scheduled next week in the Kachin State capital Myitkina.

The US President also sought an end to attacks on Muslims in Burma. Last year, such attacks left more than 100,000 stateless Rohingya homeless in western Burma’s Arakan state. In recent months, Buddhist communities also attacked Burmese Muslims in the central region of the country.

In response, Thein Sein told the audience at Johns Hopkins University that his administration “must ensure not only that inter-communal violence is brought to a halt, but that all perpetrators are brought to justice.”

Khin Maung Swe, a lawmaker with Burmese opposition National Democratic Force says that Thein Sein is sincere in his pledges. “He has the intention to bring peace and justice, especially compared with the former government,” he said.

Rights groups have also sought greater transparency in Burma’s lucrative oil and gas sectors, where opaque bookkeeping has long fostered allegations that revenues have been misappropriated or allocated to the military, rather than used for economic development in one of Asia’s poorest countries.

Burma’s Minister of Energy Than Htay and US Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs Carlos Pascual announced a new arrangement in which the US will assist Burma in improving oversight in its energy sector.

Earlier, while welcoming President Thein Sein to The White House, President Obama offered a semantic reward to the Burmese leader for the country’s recent reforms, mentioning “Myanmar” twice in his opening sentences.

The US government retains the former colonial name “Burma” in official dealings with the country, but it has pledged to use the Burmese government’s preferred name of Myanmar as a diplomatic courtesy during Thein Sein’s visit.

The Burmese military junta decreed the change from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, months after it brutally crushed a popular pro-democracy uprising against army rule.

Since US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Rangoon in late 2011, US lawmakers have also increasingly been using the name Myanmar during meetings with their Burmese counterparts, presaging a likely formal move to the use of Myanmar in the near future.

Mya Aye, one of the “88 Generation” pro-democracy demonstrators and a former political prisoner, says that he still prefers to use “Burma,” but he added that it is up to other countries’ to decide whether they refer to the country as “Myanmar” or not.

“They can call it either, I think,” he said.

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