WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama on Thursday declared a new chapter in US relations with Burma, easing an investment ban and naming the first US ambassador to the former pariah state in 22 years to reward it for democratic reforms.
Both Republican and Democrat senators welcomed the administration’s move, but human rights activists said it was premature to reward a government that remains dominated by its military and still holds hundreds of political prisoners.
Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to parliament last month has prompted Western governments to roll back years of hard-hitting restrictions against the Asian nation, which is emerging from decades of authoritarian rule and diplomatic isolation.
After meeting Burma’s foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the US was suspending sanctions on export of American financial services and investment across all sectors of the Burma economy—including in the resource-rich country’s lucrative oil, gas and mining sectors. She described it as the most significant action Washington has taken so far to reward Burma for its reforms.
“Today we say to American businesses, Invest in Burma and do it responsibly,” she told a joint news conference after talks with the foreign minister at the State Department. She said US companies would be expected to conduct due diligence to avoid any problems, including human rights abuses.
Despite the easing of restrictions, US companies would still be barred from doing business with firms associated with the country’s powerful military. The White House also announced it was keeping its framework of hard-hitting sanctions in place for now, saying Burma’s democratic reforms are still “nascent.”
Clinton described that as an “insurance policy.”
“The United States remains concerned about Burma’s closed political system, its treatment of minorities and detention of political prisoners, and its relationship with North Korea,” Obama said in a statement.
Voicing similar reservations, but crediting Burma’s reforms, influential lawmakers supported the administration’s announcements, underscoring that policy toward Burma is one in which the two parties can see eye to eye.
Republicans John McCain and Mitch McConnell said in a statement that the measures struck “an appropriate balance” between encouraging reform and maintaining leverage to press Burma to make more progress. Democrat John Kerry called it a “logical step forward.” Fellow Democrat Jim Webb urged the administration to go further and lift economic sanctions entirely. The US retains sanctions on trade and against lending to Burma by institutions like the World Bank.
One dissenting voice was Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who said “serious questions remain about Burma’s journey toward democracy.”
The senators welcomed the nomination of Derek Mitchell, the current special envoy to Burma who will become the first US ambassador to be based in the country since 1990. Clinton urged his quick confirmation by the Senate. The US is currently represented by a lower-level diplomat.
Burma will also send a full ambassador to Washington, a post to be taken by its current permanent representative to the United Nations in New York, Than Swe.
Human rights groups and exiled Burma activists were strongly critical of easing economic controls.
The US Coalition for Burma said the Obama administration was prematurely rewarding Burma while its military was escalating violence against the Kachin ethnic minority in the north of the country. The fighting over the past year has displaced tens of thousands of villagers.
“It ignores the reality of the situation on the ground, including ongoing atrocities,” said Tom Andrews of the group United to End Genocide. “This is a dangerous decision that is likely to further exacerbate human rights abuses and has left the US government without any leverage in future.”
Clinton voiced concern over the continued detention of political prisoners. Western governments say hundreds of such detainees are still held despite a series of amnesties granted by Burma’s President Thein Sein over the past year.
The Burma minister conceded there were some “so-called political prisoners” who have committed criminal offenses, such as murder, rape or are connected to terrorism. He said Thein Sein will grant further amnesties “when appropriate.”
The US investment ban has been in place since 1997. US businesses have been pushing the administration to follow the example of the European Union, which recently suspended all its economic sanctions, including on trade — although like the US, it retains an arms embargo. American businesses could yet be constrained in their involvement in the oil, gas, mining and timber industries because of military involvement in those sectors.
Suu Kyi, who spent 15 of the previous 22 years under house arrest before her release in late 2010, this week gave cautious backing to the suspension of economic sanctions but warned against undue optimism about Burma and said the reforms toward democracy—after five decades of military dominance—were still reversible.
Human Rights Watch expressed disappointment that standards of corporate responsibility that the US says will ensure transparency and oversight in American business dealings in Burma would not be legally binding.
“Human rights problems in Burma are way too serious for self-regulation,” said John Sifton, the group’s Asia advocacy director. “Preventing corporations from fueling human rights abuses, or strengthening the military regime, is a task for government.”