Consensus cracking on U.S. policy toward Myanmar

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The rare Washington consensus behind the Obama administration’s policy toward Myanmar is showing signs of cracks as American businesses grow impatient to invest there and human rights groups push back.

Those fissures are becoming evident as the U.S. rolls back its long diplomatic isolation of the military-dominated nation also known as Burma and looks to ease economic sanctions following democratic reforms there.

Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, last week criticized opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a figure revered by both U.S. political parties and key to bipartisan support for administration policy. During a recent trip to Europe she cautioned against foreign companies entering business deals with Myanmar’s murky state oil and gas enterprise. A prominent Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, echoed her concerns.

Those differences of opinion underscore how the administration’s job of maintaining broad-based support for its Myanmar policy is getting trickier. Washington is trying to open up commercial opportunities for American companies in one of Asia’s last untapped markets without losing the high ground on human rights that has driven the U.S. agenda for the past two decades.

It’s a debate playing out while explosions of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanmar leave scores dead, and its military continues to clash with ethnic rebels in the remote north — reminders that human rights concerns still loom large.

Broadly, the rare political unity that has coalesced on the administration’s Myanmar policy endures. Democrats and Republicans alike back the easing of sanctions to encourage further reforms, and the Senate on Friday approved the appointment of Derek Mitchell as the first U.S. ambassador to be based in the country in 22 years. Mr. Mitchell has served as a special envoy since August.

But even within the administration itself there are differences of opinion over how to allow U.S. investment without feeding corruption and further entrenching Myanmar's military-linked business elite.

For U.S. corporations, time is of the essence.

European companies already are free to operate in Myanmar, and within two or three months the Myanmar government will open bidding on 18 onshore oil and gas blocks — an opportunity for Western companies to move in on a lucrative sector in which China, India and Thailand currently dominate.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses and is a powerful lobbying force in Washington, is urging the administration to get moving. The chamber has voiced disappointment that seven weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged American businesses to invest in Myanmar, the administration has yet to issue the necessary regulations.

Mr. Webb, a longtime advocate of engagement with Myanmar, has teamed up with a conservative Republican, Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, to press for a comprehensive lifting of economic sanctions, arguing it would help sustain the country’s political reforms. But Mr. Webb chided Mrs. Suu Kyi, questioning whether “an official from any foreign government should be telling us what sectors that we should invest in and not invest in” — a highly unusual note of criticism directed at a figure who spent 15 years under house arrest before she was elected to parliament in April.

On the other hand, Mr. McCain has endorsed Mrs. Suu Kyi’s comments, saying her concerns over the lack of accountability and transparency in the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, known as MOGE, must be addressed before letting U.S. companies invest in that sector.

“We must prioritize our democratic principles,” Mr. McCain said in a statement.

Rights groups charge that the administration now is prioritizing American commercial interests instead.

“Suddenly there are new objectives competing with the old ones that formed the heart of Burma policy for so many years,” said Tom Malinowski, director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. “This is about helping U.S. companies not miss out on the natural gas blocks to be auctioned off in the next few months.”

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