BANGKOK – In a rare snub by American lawmakers for Myanmar parliamentarian and long-time detainee Aung San Suu Kyi, the United States on Wednesday gave a go-ahead for American businesses to invest in Myanmar’s oil and gas sectors.
“The United States is easing restrictions to allow US companies to responsibly do business in Burma,” said president Obama, using the old name for Myanmar.
Suu Kyi, who is currently participating in sessions of Myanmar’s army-dominated legislature in the country’s austere administrative capital Naypyidaw, supports sanctions-lifting by western countries and investment by western business, in keeping with the reforms undertaken by Myanmar’s nominally-civilian government in office since March 2011.
But she has expressed caution regarding the Myanmar state-run energy company, long-regarded as a cesspit of corruption with tight links to the country’s abusive military. Speaking in Geneva on June 18, the National League for Democracy (NLD) parliamentarian warned that “the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE)…with which all foreign participation in the energy sector takes place through joint venture arrangements, lacks both transparency and accountability at present.”
Reacting to the US announcement today, Suu Kyi told AFP that the move was “nothing significant”, and wondered whether the US had sought some form of improved transparency from MOGE prior to the announcement.
Suu Kyi was recently-chided by the Myanmar government for continuing to use “Burma”, the name of choice for opponents of Myanmar’s military dictatorship, which issued a decree in 1989 changing the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in a move still controversial due to its arbitrary genesis.
The US and some other western governments have long taken their cue on Myanmar policy from Aung San Suu Kyi, hence the continued use of “Burma” by US officials, but the Obama administration’s decision on investment runs against that well-worn grain.
The new US policy allows American companies to bed down with MOGE but they will be required to report annually to the State Department with evidence that their investments factor in workers’ rights and the environment.
The announcement came just hours after Ambassador Derek Mitchell took up post in Myanmar, the first American emissary to hold that position since 1990, when the NLD famously won a national election but was denied office by the military junta.
The timing should allow American oil and gas companies position themselves for an upcoming auction for some of Myanmar’s offshore deposits.
Aung Kyaw Htoo, assistant director at the energy planning department at the Myanmar energy ministry, told a June investment conference in Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon that there will be “opportunities for co-operation in the Myanmar energy sector”, adding that “there are quite a number of places not so explored or unexplored.”
More specifically, he said that the international bidding process for 25 offshore oil and gas blocks will take place “in two or three months time,” that is, in August or September.
Those announcements came the same week as Myanmar president Thein Sein announced that the coming year would see a “second wave” of reforms in the country, mostly economic.
While Chevron has a presence in Myanmar dating to the pre-sanctions era, other US energy companies were not permitted to invest in the country also known as Burma, as sanctions took hold in the 1990s and later.
American companies have pressed the US government to end restrictions on investment, saying that European business could steal a march on Americans, in a country where Asian companies have a head-start as they were generally not affected by western sanctions.
However expatriate Burmese lobbies, human rights groups and several prominent US lawmakers – including a bipartisan group fronted by Sen. John McCain – urged the Obama administration to heed Aung San Suu Kyi’s jeremiad about MOGE when fine-tuning sanctions-easing decisions.
The announcement comes as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits nearby Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – the latter for a regional foreign ministers parlay – amid a growing geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, which is partly being played out in southeast Asia and with a particular focus on the disputed South China Sea.
Laos and Cambodia are seen increasingly as Chinese economic satellites, while Vietnam and Myanmar, which have had close political and economic ties with booming China in recent times, have both made overtures to the United States in recent times.Show