WASHINGTON – A Republican and a Democratic senators and American businesses are pressing the U.S. government to allow investment by oil and gas companies in Myanmar as the U.S moves to suspend economic sanctions against that country.
Democrat Jim Webb and Republican James Inhofe made the appeal at a confirmation hearing Wednesday for the first U.S. ambassador to the military-dominated country in 22 years.
The Obama administration announced last month its plan to ease the sanctions to reward the military-dominated government for democratic reforms. The ambassador nominee, Derek Mitchell, said the administration is still deliberating the details of a general license that would facilitate U.S. investment.
He said no sectors of Myanmar's economy would be excluded, but voiced concerns about transparency and corruption in a Myanmar state enterprise that the petroleum industry would need to partner with.
Over the past year, Mitchell led Washington's efforts to engage the country also known as Burma after decades of diplomatic isolation, a policy that has won bipartisan support. His appointment is widely expected to receive Senate approval, and Webb said that would likely happen this week.
Despite Myanmar's swift shift away from authoritarian rule — for which Mitchell credited President Thein Sein's "extraordinary vision and leadership" — the country faces tough challenges. Activists are concerned that new foreign investment could entrench Myanmar's military-linked business elite, and ethnic violence continues unchecked in some regions. Communal clashes in the western state of Rakhine have left scores dead since late May.
Mitchell voiced concern over military impunity in ethnic minority regions, and the armed forces unique constitutional position — which guarantees them a quarter of parliamentary seats and an effective veto on constitutional amendments.
Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has reconciled with the government after years of persecution and house arrest, has welcomed responsible foreign investment, but has urged foreign governments against allowing companies to do joint ventures with the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise until it improves its transparency and accountability.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a statement Wednesday that would amount to a "de facto investment ban" in that sector — the impoverished country's main source of foreign revenue.
The chamber, which represents 3 million businesses, criticized the U.S. government for not moving faster to issue the general license since announcing May 17 it would allow U.S. investment. The chamber also cautioned against the imposition of "burdensome reporting requirements" on U.S. companies.
Human rights groups are calling for strict standards of social corporate responsibility and wants the administration to make them legally binding.