Tue 17 Jul 2012
Filed under: International
Washington — The United States on Monday urged Myanmar to ensure transparency and human rights as US companies made a rare trip to explore business in a nation coming off decades of sanctions.
Two senior US officials joined executives of 38 companies on the weekend tour of the nation formerly known as Burma, days after President Barack Obama announced a controversial suspension of US investment including in oil and gas.
Robert Hormats, the under secretary of state in charge of business, met officials and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and voiced support for the dramatic recent reforms in the long-closed nation, the State Department said.
Hormats said the United States was “committed to working with the government of Burma to improve transparency and anti-corruption efforts, including across state-owned companies such as the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE),” a State Department statement said.
Hormats said US relations with Myanmar would depend on “respecting human rights, including promoting labor rights, protecting the rights of ethnic minorities, and releasing hundreds of remaining political prisoners,” the statement said.
Prominent US lawmakers and human rights advocates, who had largely backed Obama’s outreach to Myanmar, criticized his decision to allow US firms to partner with MOGE for fear that the company will set back reforms.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who is widely respected in Washington, had herself warned against Western nations teaming up with MOGE until it agreed to abide by international standards on transparency.
Hormats urged Myanmar to sign the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a standard for openness on oil and gas that was first announced a decade ago by former British prime minister Tony Blair.
Jonas Moberg, the head of the initiative’s international secretariat, is visiting Myanmar this week on a separate trip after government officials voiced interest in the standard.
Oil companies Chevron, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil participated in the Myanmar trip, along with companies in other sectors such as Dell, FedEx, Google, Procter & Gamble and Time Warner.
General Electric announced plans to invest in equipment at two hospitals, following Coca-Cola which said last month it would return to Myanmar after two decades — leaving only Cuba and North Korea without the officially licensed US soda.
Anthony Nelson of the US-ASEAN Business Council, which organized the trip, said firms mostly went to Myanmar to explore future opportunities as the country’s leaders are developing laws to reform the economy.
“Our message there is, really, we would rather see them take their time and consult with stakeholders and get things right than to try to rush things out, and I think they understand that,” Nelson told AFP by telephone from Yangon.
“Major US companies don’t want to deal with people who are committing major human rights abuses anyway, so I don’t think that’s something that holds us back,” he said.
Companies and some US lawmakers have argued that investment restrictions only hurt US firms as Asian nations have long invested in Myanmar and the European Union, Australia and Canada have all ended or suspended sanctions.
Separately Monday, the Abbott Fund, the foundation of Chicago-based health care company Abbott, said it would provide $1 million over two years to Myanmar for an initiative set up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to support women and girls.
The Abbott Fund said that it would fund local groups that have been active even with limited resources in promoting health, education and economic opportunities for women.
“That strength of civil society in Burma is really remarkable and, I think, worthy of support and investment,” said Katherine Pickus, vice president of the Abbott Fund.
“It doesn’t mean that the problems are all going to be solved just with one or two grants. This is about really investing and building a long-term capacity and solutions in the community,” she told AFP.