By Eric Watkins
LOS ANGELES, June 8 – U.S. sanctions against Myanmar, also known as Burma, remain firmly in place, preventing development of the country’s oil and gas assets. But events are now moving rapidly, and new investment possibilities are on the horizon.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month said that steps are being taken to authorize new U.S. investment and to permit Myanmar to gain access to international markets and dollar-based transactions.
“We are doing what others have done – the European Union, the United Kingdom. We are suspending sanctions,” Clinton said. “We will be keeping relevant laws on the books as an insurance policy, but our goal and our commitment is to move as rapidly as we can to expand business and investment opportunities.”
That will be welcome news, especially to U.S. energy firms who look forward to doing business in Burma. But the door is still not fully open.
“We hope the U.S. government takes the next step that will allow us to assess and move forward with opportunities that are there,” said Chevron Vice President George Kirkland. “At this point we still can’t go into joint ventures there, and we always like to be where there is hydrocarbon potential,” Kirkland told Dow Jones News.
There can be little doubt of the opportunities that are opening in Burma through the country’s improved political freedoms – a point underlined by its Energy Minister U Than Htay at the recent World Economic Forum.
U Than Htay described the initiatives of the government of President Thein Sein, saying the first is Myanmar’s transition to democracy with the constitution at the core. “The priority is given to the fundamental rights of citizens,” said the minister.
“National leaders and the armed forces are harmoniously taking part in their respective sectors to reach this stage,” he said, adding that the government’s efforts are being made to enable the people to live in peace and stability and see the country develop economically.
U Than said the government is focusing on national reconciliation. Bye-elections were held in April in a free, fair and transparent manner. Legislation has been signed to allow workers to form unions, eliminate forced labor, protect the right of citizens to assemble peacefully and ease media censorship.
He said that President Thein Sein has granted amnesties four times, and that progress is being made in peace talks with groups still in arms. An agreement with the Kachin Independence Army may be achieved soon – a welcome development.
The privatization of government companies and assets also is in the cards, U Than said, insisting that the government will make sure they will not end up with only a handful of people. “Myanmar’s reforms are not aimed at benefiting one class or community, but all classes,” he said.
The release from house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has marked a key turning point in the world’s view of the government in Burma, with calls coming for the lifting of sanctions as a result. But Aung San Suu Kyi herself insists on caution.
‘PLEASE BE WARNED’
Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the issue of investment in Burma at the World Economic Forum. While recognizing her country’s need for an “energy policy,” Aung San Suu Kyi also insisted on the need for continued reform – especially in the country’s system of justice.
“Investors in Burma, please be warned – even the best investment law would be of no use whatsoever if there is no court clean enough and independent enough to be able to administer these laws justly,” she said.
“Good laws already exist in Burma but we do not have a clean and independent judicial system. Unless we have such a system it is no use having the best laws in the world,” she said.
Calling for a “healthy skepticism” towards reform under the quasi-civilian government of President U Thein Sein, she decried a lack of change to the country’s broken legal system and asked delegates to think “deeply” about what is good for Burma.
“For a moment please don’t think too much of the benefit investment will bring to investors,” she said, adding that, “We don’t want investment to mean further corruption and greater inequality.”
That’s a burden of responsibility that will fall on any companies hoping to invest in Burma, but especially U.S. firms – a point underlined by Clinton in her remarks last month.
“Invest in Burma and do it responsibly; be an agent of positive change and be a good corporate citizen; let’s all work together to create jobs, opportunity, and support reform,” she said.
That sounds like a plan.
© Glamma Productions Inc. 2012