US Trip to Target Sanctions

Burma’s president will lobby for an end to an import ban during his historic US visit.

2012.09.24
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Thein Sein (C) visits the Laem Chabang deep-sea port on the Gulf of Thailand, July 22, 2012.
AFP

Burma’s President Thein Sein will make the lifting of remaining key U.S. sanctions against his country the top priority of his visit to New York this week, the first American trip by a Burmese leader in nearly half a century.

He would specifically focus on lifting a ban of Burmese imports to the U.S., Maj. Zaw Htay, director of Thein Sein’s office, told Radio Free Asia’s Burmese service on Monday.

Zaw Htay said that U.S. President Barack Obama has the authority to lift the import ban.

“If the executive wants [to lift it] he can do so. We are not in the position to ask [President Obama] to do so, but we expect he will,” he said.

The U.S. Congress decided last month to renew the import ban for another year but reports have said that President Obama has the authority to issue a waiver to ease the embargo.

Zaw Htay said that Thein Sein, who will address the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Thursday, plans to highlight the reforms he has implemented since his nominally civilian government took office in March last year, and to ask the international community for “cooperation and assistance.”

The president has allowed the opposition to participate in parliamentary elections, negotiated peace agreements with the country’s ethnic groups, and released hundreds of political prisoners.

The U.S. and European Union have made those actions preconditions to the easing of sanctions against Burma, which were put in place in response to human rights abuses committed by the former military regime.

Zaw Htay said that the barriers that remain to the U.S. lifting the ban on Burmese imports are “complex,” but that the Burmese government would keep Washington informed of the reforms it implements in order to assure U.S. lawmakers that Burma’s democratic process is legitimate.

“We are transforming our political system towards a democracy, and we just have to keep working at it,” Zaw Htay said.

“Unfortunately, our economy has not responded as quickly as we expected it would.”

Thein Sein is expected to meet with several other leaders during the U.N. General Assembly, Zaw Htay said, and will sit down with members of Burma’s expatriate community in New York on Friday before returning home.

Opposition visit

Thein Sein’s visit comes as Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is in the midst of her own landmark U.S. trip.

The Nobel laureate has maintained a busy schedule, receiving several awards, meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and visiting the U.N., where she worked in the 1970s.

She will also be traveling to Indiana, Kentucky, and California during the rest of her three-week visit, where she plans to speak with members of the Burmese exile community and address the student bodies of a number of U.S. universities.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s reception in the U.S. has been decidedly more high-profile than the expected welcome for Thein Sein, even though the president has been responsible for nearly all of the reforms implemented in Burma over the past nearly two years.

But that is due, in large part, to western admiration of the opposition leader’s work in bringing democracy to the formerly pariah nation, despite being incarcerated under house arrest by the former junta for much of the last two decades.

Aung San Suu Kyi is also seen as a natural leader for the people of Burma, rather than Thein Sein, who was thrust into power following historic elections in 2010 which brought in a military-backed civilian government and which were widely seen as being neither free nor fair.

Still, the two politicians see eye-to-eye on a number of plans for Burma’s future, including the need for the U.S. to abandon sanctions, which Aung San Suu Kyi has said were useful as a tool against the former military regime, but should now be removed to allow the Burmese people to “control their own destiny” in reshaping the nation.

The lifting of the import ban would provide a significant boon to Burma’s economy, which is in shambles after decades of mismanagement by the former junta.

FDI law

Another way the Burmese government hopes to bring much needed cash into the country is by reforming its business sector in an effort to attract foreign capital. A major hurdle to the overseas business community was removed earlier this year when Washington eased sanctions against Burma clearing the way for foreign investment.

On Sept. 7, the last day of the most recent parliamentary session, Burmese lawmakers passed an eagerly awaited foreign direct investment (FDI) law which was expected to help bring the economy of the impoverished nation up to speed after stagnating under military rule.

The law omitted several requirements present in an earlier draft, including a U.S. $5 million minimum initial investment and clause limiting foreign firms to 49 percent of any joint venture, but required Thein Sein’s signature before it could be implemented.

Instead, the president returned the legislation to Burma’s parliament with a number of recommendations to amend it, Zaw Htay said.

“They are not major differences,” he said, “just small details in which he feels the word choice could be better.”

The Associated Press quoted Zaw Htay as saying that one change suggested by Thein Sein concerned the clause which now limits the foreign stake in joint ventures to 50 percent.

He said Thein Sein wants the joint venture ratio to remain flexible, depending on the particular sector, with details to be prescribed later in a by-law by the Investment Commission.

Thein Sein also wants parliament to give clearer definitions in the list of sectors in which foreign investment will be restricted to avoid misunderstandings.
Burma’s parliament will once again tackle the bill when it reconvenes in the third week of October.

Zaw Htay said Thein Sein expects that the FDI law will have a “large” impact on Burma’s economy and said it is the president’s “top priority” since enacting macroeconomic reforms aimed at alleviating poverty and reforming Central Bank exchange rates to create a free market.

“We have a functioning FDI law, but to be on par with the changing situation, we are complying [with the reform suggestions],” Zaw Htay said.

Phyo Min Thein, a Member of Parliament from Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy party representing Hlegu township, said that all parties were working together to ensure that the FDI law allows Burma to compete in the new democratic era.

"The president is trying his best in the transitional period, and we from the parliament also want to have these laws written properly—to draw FDI and to come out from under the sanctions with integrity during this transitional time,” he said.

But he said that any amendments to the draft law should be debated in an open forum and not pushed through without being thoroughly considered.
“If we are about to amend the draft, we should discuss [the changes],” he said.

Reported by Ingjin Naing for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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