(Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Two days after the Obama administration announced U.S. investment will be allowed in Burma amid criticism by human rights groups, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced Burmese President Thein Sein to America's biggest corporations at a meeting in Cambodia.
Clinton, who met the reformist President Sein at a business forum in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap on Friday, said the week was a "milestone" in U.S.-Burma relations as Washington lifted restrictions on U.S. investments in the country officially known as Myanmar.
"We're excited by what lies ahead and we're very supportive of President Thein Sein's economic and political reforms," The Associated Press quoted Clinton as saying. She also said U.S. officials were taking 70 company representatives to Burma, which was ruled by the junta for decades until two years ago.
"I brought a very prestigious business delegation to see you. I wanted them all to hear from you tonight about your plans for the future," Clinton told Sein. The delegation to Southeast Asia included Coca Cola, Ford Motor Co., General Electric, General Motors, Goldman Sachs and Google.
President Sein, a former military general, has introduced political reforms including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, new laws allowing labor unions and strikes, and a gradual easing of media restrictions.
Sein responded by saying, "I am very pleased to see our bilateral relationship improving dramatically ... We are pleased that President Obama eased the sanctions."
According to a U.S. official, Sein assured Clinton he would manage his rich country's wealth responsibly, and share it among its people. Rights groups have long accused the Burmese regime of a lack of financial transparency.
Clinton also raised human rights issues in general and the fate of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group in particular. Burma has denied citizenship to the Rohingyas in Arakan State, and has tortured, neglected and repressed them since the independence in 1948. Most recently, violence broke out after the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman allegedly by three Muslims in late May.
Opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had urged the international community not to do business with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, which has had links with the military for decades.
Human Rights Watch has also warned against investments in the oil and gas sector. "By allowing deals with Burma's state-owned oil company, the U.S. looks like it caved to industry pressure and undercut Aung San Suu Kyi and others in Burma who are promoting government accountability," Arvind Ganesan, the group's business and human rights director, has said.
Rights activists also say the government of Buddhist-majority Burma has not brought any significant change in ethnic minority states along the country's borders with India, Thailand and China. Burmese soldiers are still at war with armed ethnic minority groups that have been demanding autonomy for decades, including in Karen and Kachin states which is home to a vast number ethnic minority Christians. The decades-long war has witnessed tens of thousands of civilian casualties – which rights group say must be a consideration in the easing of sanctions.