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US eases sanctions, allows companies to do business with Myanmar

After 15 years of sanctions, the US will allow investment in Myanmar again. The move was the latest in a three-year push to normalize diplomatic relations with Myanmar.

By Matthew PenningtonAssociated Press / July 11, 2012

In this photo taken in March, Derek Mitchell, left, then US special envoy to Myanmar, speaks during a press conference after meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, at her residence in Yangon, Myanmar. The US Embassy in Myanmar says Mitchell, Washington's first ambassador to the Southeast Asian nation in 22 years has arrived, on the same day the US eased sanctions on Myanmar.

Khin Maung Win/AP

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Washington

The Obama administration gave permission Wednesday for American companies to invest in Myanmar and work with its state oil and gas enterprise, a go-ahead that marks the most significant easing of US sanctions against the former pariah nation.

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At the same time, the administration expanded US Treasury authority to punish those who undermine the nascent political reforms and sanctioned a Myanmar military industry involved in a deal for ballistic missile technology from North Korea.

The new restrictions, imposed even as the 15-year-old ban on investment and export of financial services was eased, underscored how far the country also known as Burma has to go before it truly cleans shop after five decades of military rule.

"Today, the United States is easing restrictions to allow US companies to responsibly do business in Burma," President Barack Obama said in a statement that credited reformist President Thein Sein and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for continued progress toward democracy but also voiced deep concern over the murky investment environment.

The announcement came hours after Derek Mitchell, the first US ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years, presented his credentials in the Asian nation's remote capital. Washington has normalized diplomatic relations, the culmination of a three-year push to help Myanmar out of international isolation and lessen its reliance on its chief but distrusted ally, China.

But human rights groups and business advocates are increasingly at odds over how Washington should respond to the changes in Myanmar, and Wednesday's announcement exposed a rare difference between the administration and Suu Kyi, long a guiding force on US policies toward the country.

Last month, the Nobel Peace laureate advised foreign companies not to invest in the state-run Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise until it became more accountable and open. Doing business with the oil company is the only way to gain access to Myanmar's potentially lucrative energy resources, and U.S. companies fear with that without that opportunity, they will lose out to foreign competitors.

The administration argued that working with US companies — that face tough anti-corruption constraints under US law — could improve the situation.

Rights activists were unconvinced.

"By allowing deals with Burma's state-owned oil company, the US looks like it caved to industry pressure and undercut Aung San Suu Kyi and others in Burma who are promoting government accountability," said Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch.

Aung Din of the US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based activist group, said the decision "will be appreciated by the Burmese generals, cronies and US corporations, but not by the people of Burma."

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