US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Myanmar President Thein Sein were to hold landmark talks on Friday as Washington moves to ease its sanctions on the once-pariah state.
The two leaders were to meet in the Cambodian tourist town Siem Reap on the sidelines of a conference, amid concerns among rights groups the US is moving too fast in its eagerness to cash in on Myanmar’s vast business potential.
Washington on Wednesday gave the green light for firms to invest in the southeast Asian country, including in oil and gas, in its greatest loosening of sanctions to reward reforms after nearly half a century of military rule.
The decision will please US firms eager not to miss out on what some economists expect to be a goldrush in the resource-rich nation.
Asian firms have been doing business in Myanmar for years, while the European Union suspended most of its sanctions against the country in April.
Myanmar on Friday said Thein Sein and Clinton were expected to discuss changes that have swept Myanmar since a quasi-civilian government replaced the military junta last year.
“The meeting shows the support of the US government to Myanmar’s reform process,” Zaw Htay, director of the president’s office, told AFP.
Clinton acknowledged Friday in a speech to a women’s forum in the Cambodian tourist town of Siem Reap that in Myanmar “as the economy opens up, there will be new challenges”.
“It will be tempting, given the country’s extremely low wages, to try to attract investment by undercutting competitors like Bangladesh and Cambodia.”
But she argued long-term sustainable development would be strengthened if the nation’s leaders “focus on protecting workers, attracting quality jobs, and continuing to reform the political system”.
And she insisted Washington was setting up “protections to ensure that increased American investment advances rather than undermines the reform process” as US firms will have to report on transparency and labour rights.
Myanmar — along with regional neighbours — has called for all sanctions to be lifted as the country embarks on its “second wave” of economic reforms.
Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the sanctions decision, but called for greater transparency at state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which US firms will be able to do business with under the new rules.
Her comments were echoed by influential US Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, who said operations at the organisation “remain non-transparent and the billions of dollars in foreign investment that it receives remain unaccountable to the people and parliament of Burma”.
Human Rights Watch went further, saying Washington had “caved to industry pressure” because it did not insist on reforms in governance and human rights.
Thein Sein’s comments to the UN Thursday that refugee camps or deportation was the “solution” for stateless Muslim Rohingya, following communal violence last month in western Myanmar, are also likely to alarm Western nations.
Left impoverished by decades of economic mismanagement and isolation under army rule, the country is seen as the next big frontier in Asia for firms wanting to take advantage of its resources, cheap labour force, high growth potential and strategic position between China and India.
Thein Sein told the Singapore Straits Times his country would sign up to an Oslo-based initiative to enhance transparency of payments in the oil and minerals sector.
He told the daily that “foreign investment had to benefit the people of this country to help raise their incomes.”
Thein Sein will be introduced by Clinton at a US-ASEAN business forum Friday in Siem Reap which will be the largest ever gathering of American corporate leaders in Asia.
Executives from Coca-Cola, Caterpillar, DHL and Goldman Sachs are among dozens of US companies travelling to the conference.
A high-level delegation of US business leaders will be visiting Yangon and the capital Naypyidaw in the coming days.