Mon 23 Jul 2012
Filed under: Business / Trade,International,News
THE Obama administration is “looking very closely” at issuing a presidential waiver to overturn a US Congress-imposed ban on imports from Myanmar, new United States ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell said last week.
A US Senate committee on July 18 supported extending the ban on imports, contained in the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, for an additional three years, while maintaining the government’s right to waive the measure. The extension still needs full approval from Congress.
But during a meeting with local newspaper editors on July 17, Mr Mitchell said the renewal “doesn’t mean that we’re stuck for two or three years”.
“We’re looking very closely at [the import ban] because we understand that it can have an impact on jobs and opportunities very much,” he said.
Issuing the waiver would be dependent on progress on US “areas of concern”, including the release of more prisoners of conscience, ethnic conflict, media reform and clarification of Myanmar’s military relations with North Korea.
“But as [positive progress] continues to occur, I think in the coming weeks and months we’re going to be debating this issue of the import ban,” he said.
“We want to make sure the signal is sent that if things go backwards that we can also go backwards and it will affect the relationship. But if things move forward we have the full authority and flexibility to respond as needed through waivers. So that means last week we waived our investment ban, that’s why all the businesses were here, because things are moving forward.”
The waiver on investment, issued on July 11, has not been without its critics, who argued that the decision was too hasty and had undermined the position of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who on her trip to Europe expressed concern about the lack of transparency at state-run Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE).
In a July 15 op-ed in The Washington Post, Michael Green and Daniel Twining said the Obama administration had “rushed this decision through a divided deputies committee of the National Security Council, and ignored strong opposition from key members of Congress opposed to a full-scale repeal of the investment ban”.
“By publicly splitting with Burma’s democratic opposition on such an important issue, the administration will find that Aung San Suu Kyi no longer provides political cover for US policies,” the two former George W Bush administration officials wrote.
“US business and government leaders’ argument that nearly unconstrained investment in Burma’s natural resource sector will promote human rights and welfare will face skepticism from Burmese democrats who have committed their lives to this cause, and who believe it will not.”
But Mr Mitchell, whose appointment was confirmed by the US Senate in late June and was accredited in Nay Pyi Taw on July 11, said the NLD had expressed little opposition to the waiver.
“That is a narrative that’s out there, that [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] has said ‘x’ in Europe and we have now done differently,” he said.
“But also she said this [waiver] is not significant, this is fine, and her spokesperson, Nyan Win, said there is nothing to be disappointed about, they did what they should do. That somehow has gotten lost in all this.
“That’s a free media, it’s not always fair, people can write what they like. When you’re in government and you’re in democracy there are different views and you have to have a thick skin. People will criticise you for various reasons. I think [Michael Green and Daniel Twining] probably believe that.
“I think that people who disagreed with [the decision to issue the waiver] are trying to find a rationale for opposing what we did and putting pressure on us. And that just goes with the territory. But again that’s not to say we do not share their concerns. We do share those concerns but we feel that the way we are going about it is a more constructive way of doing it rather than their approach.”
“We’re not ignorant to the issue of MOGE’s non-transparency and the way they can use those funds for things that are not in the public interest. And we want more transparency and we tried to model that in our sanctions easing for reporting requirements, including specific ones relevant to our interactions with MOGE.”
The transparency requirements outlined in the waiver are “unprecedented anywhere in the world”, Mr Mitchell said.
“We’ve never done this, and we’re not suggesting we even do it again anywhere else. We’re saying that for this context, at this time, given our policy approach for all these years, we think it’s appropriate for our engagement right now here.”
He said he was confident US businesses operating in Myanmar would set a standard for firms from other countries to follow in terms of corporate social responsibility.
“I really believe … that our businesses do the best in terms of modelling openness, transparency, good governance, benefits for local people, local workers, for local communities, communication with locals. I’m going to be in the embassy overseeing and ensuring our businesses are keeping to that but I have no doubt that our businesses will be partners in what the US government has been doing, which is encouraging reform and progress here.”