U.S. set to OK investments in Myanmar

Deals with national energy business go against democracy leader’s wishes

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The United States is poised to allow companies to invest with Myanmar’s state oil and gas enterprise as the Obama administration takes its biggest step yet to roll back sanctions, marking a rare break from democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mrs. Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate who has long been the guiding force on U.S. policies toward Myanmar, last month advised against investment by foreign companies with the state Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) because of concerns about its accountability and transparency.

Her comments reflected the growing disagreement between human rights groups and business advocates on how the U.S. should proceed in easing restrictions.

While Mrs. Suu Kyi cautiously has supported suspending sanctions as a reward for Myanmar’s shift from five decades of authoritarian rule, she and other democracy advocates are wary about investment in MOGE, which had been an economic lifeline for the former ruling junta.

But doing business with MOGE is the only way to gain access to Myanmar’s potentially lucrative energy resources, and U.S. companies fear they will lose out to foreign competitors if the restrictions aren’t lifted.

Recognizing continuing concerns over corruption and rights abuses in Myanmar, the administration is expected to require U.S. companies to report on their investments in the country, which also is known as Burma.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in May that U.S. companies would be allowed to invest in all sectors of Myanmar’s economy, though not companies owned or operated by the military. She also announced the suspension of a ban on the export of U.S. financial services, seen as vital for starting to do business there.

The administration is expected to take the next step this week, when it announces the issuance of a general license that finally opens the door for U.S. companies to operate in one of Asia’s last untapped markets.

Mrs. Clinton currently is traveling through Southeast Asia, a trip centered on a meeting of the region’s foreign ministers in Cambodia but also underscoring U.S. efforts to deepen trade and investment ties with a region of rising prosperity and importance as an export market.

An announcement on easing sanctions also would coincide with the arrival in Myanmar of Derek Mitchell, the first U.S. ambassador to the country in 22 years, as Washington normalizes its diplomatic relations with a former pariah state.

In a further sign of U.S. efforts to forge closer ties, Robert Hormats, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, and Francisco Sanchez, undersecretary of commerce for international trade, will travel to Myanmar this weekend to promote economic and business engagement.

Western governments are eager to reward reformist President Thein Sein for reconciling with Mrs. Suu Kyi, who was elected to parliament after spending 15 years under house arrest. The investment sanctions, in place since 1997, have contributed to Myanmar missing out on the region’s economic boom.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some U.S. lawmakers have been pressing the administration to expedite the general license that will allow U.S. companies to compete with those from Asia and Europe already free to operate there.

A senior administration official said Monday that when Mrs. Clinton is in Siem Reap, Cambodia, accompanied by a U.S. business delegation, she will be laying out plans of how the process of sanctions easing will proceed.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to brief reporters traveling with Mrs. Clinton, said she will engage with U.S. businesspeople “who are anxious and interested in the prospect of participating in the economic opening.”

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