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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.

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The US Chamber of Commerce commended the easing of sanctions. Its vice president of international affairs, John Murphy, said every other major economy, including Australia, Canada, and the European Union, has moved more swiftly than the US, and continuing sanctions would have only added to the head start for Asian and European companies.

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"It's a false choice to say we have to choose between human rights and business interests in Burma," he said in a statement. "Ensuring US companies have a strong presence in Burma will help raise labor and environmental practices and corporate social responsibility."

Western nations have moved swiftly in recent months to roll back sanctions, particularly after special elections that saw Suu Kyi elected to parliament after 15 years of house arrest. Governments have expressed hope that can bolster Thein Sein and help him win over military hardliners suspicious of the reform agenda and improve life in the impoverished nation.

Mindful of concerns over corruption and rights abuses, the administration said US companies with more than $500,000 in aggregate new investment will be asked to file an annual report disclosing their procedures on human rights, land acquisitions, the environment and payments to Myanmar government entities. Additionally, companies have to notify the State Department within 60 days of investing with the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the country's oil company merited closer oversight than other companies and the US is working hard with that enterprise and the Myanmar government to quickly improve its operations.

"We believe that there will be benefits both to the people of Burma and to US investors in allowing US companies, in a careful, calibrated and responsible manner, to engage with MOGE," Vietor said in an email.

Human Rights Watch said the reporting requirements for US investors were useful and innovative but would not erase the risk of companies becoming involved in rights abuses and corruption.

American investment is still forbidden with military-owned companies, and the administration sanctioned the Directorate of Defense Industries, which it said had carried out missile research and development at its facilities in Myanmar, where North Korean experts are active. The administration said in November 2008 that military officials, including the directorate's head, had signed a memorandum of understanding with North Korea to provide assistance to Myanmar to build medium-range, liquid-fueled ballistic missiles, and in the past year, North Korean ships have continued to arrive at Myanmar's ports carrying goods destined for its defense industries.

The US and other governments have repeatedly urged Myanmar to sever its military ties with Pyongyang and to step up its engagement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to allay any lingering concerns it may have sought nuclear weapons, possibly with North Korean help.

The military is also accused of continuing serious human rights abuses, particularly in ethnic minority regions where it is fighting insurgents. And despite releases of hundreds of political prisoners by Thein Sein over the past year, the U.S. government says hundreds more are still detained.

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Ben Feller contributed to this report.

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