The Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) on Thursday urged the U.S. government to maintain sanctions on business activities in Burma, warning that a gold rush in aid to the Southeast Asian nation could fuel further human rights abuses, risk fragile cease-fires and arrest ongoing democratic reforms rather than bolster them, it said in a statement.
A ban on investment and financial services by U.S. companies in Burma is due to expire on May 20 unless the presidential order imposing it is renewed or revised.
Unlike the European Union, which has already suspended its sanctions on Burma for a period of 12 months, the U.S. has yet to lift the majority of economic sanctions it imposes on the former pariah state, it said.
However, it said the Obama administration has signaled that it intends to lift certain business restrictions in the near future and is under increasing pressure from certain sections of the Senate and powerful lobbyists for big business to allow US companies to join the race for riches in Burma "or else be left behind."
"As everyone with any knowledge on Burma will attest, the changes we have seen to date are far from irreversible,”said Kraisak Choonhavan, AIPMC vice president.
"It is ludicrous to reward the current government's untested reforms by paving the way for a gold rush. Fighting in Burma’s ethnic areas continues and many of the ethnic leaders are concerned that these reforms are just a ploy to pave the way for 'development' projects on their lands," he said.
Without a clear political settlement between the central state and the armed ethnic groups, any major investments will likely lead to further human rights abuses, land grabbing, corruption and enrich military leaders and their cronies who control most of the country's wealth, the statement said.
Before ethical and responsible investment can take place, it said Burma must first reach a negotiated political settlement with the armed ethnic groups with which it has been fighting for decades, and must also draft and institute tough labour and environmental laws as well as other legislation that regulates the actions of businesses, especially foreign investments, and protects the rights of the people and the environment.
AIPMC backs the recent call by the United Nationalities Federation Council (UNFC) for Western governments to maintain remaining political, military, financial and economic sanctions on Myanmar until the Burmese military halts its offensives in Kachin State.
AIPMC also supports the UNFC's call for genuine political dialogue and negotiation between the ethnic groups and the Union of Myanmar. AIPMC said it continues to urge all ethnic parties to work together under the umbrella of the UNFC to push for a negotiated political settlement with the Burmese government and an end to all armed conflict in Myanmar.
However, it also recognized the pressure being placed on the Obama administration from U.S. businesses which do not want to lose out to competitors in Asia as well as in Europe and other Western nations. However, AIPMC reiterated the need for all Western governments to maintain a system of sanctions aimed at empowering and strengthening all reformist elements in Myanmar, including those within the government of President Thein Sein.
"Before the US makes any rash moves, it really should consult with the people on the ground -- the Obama administration should be talking to civil society organizations both inside Myanmar and those working from outside on the Thai-Myanmar border to get their views. If you speak to the ethnic leaders, they will tell you that a rush of unregulated outside investment in their areas is probably their biggest concern right now -- it will wreak havoc of mammoth proportions," Kraisak said.
The statement said the U.S. should continue to lead the world in its policy on sanctions. It should not act in haste and follow the lead of the E.U., Canada, Australia and other nations. It must continue to pursue a calibrated approach, it said, with the selected easing of specific sanctions tied to concrete progress and matching of stated benchmarks for reform by the military-dominated Myanmar government.
These include the release of all political prisoners, an end to military activities in the ethnic territories and entering into inclusive political dialogue with ethnic groups, as well as instituting legislative and constitutional reforms to bring Myanmar in line with international democratic norms.
A definitive list of regulations and rules dictating how US companies can do business in Myanmar and with who must also be drawn up and enforced to ensure US companies do not fuel human rights abuses with their investments. These decisions should be made in close consultation with nongovernmental agencies.
"It is important that the Obama administration's view of the situation on the ground is not skewed by the loud shouts of big business -- it must listen to the people and those that have made untold sacrifices in their decades-long struggle to bring democracy and justice to Burma. Everyone wants to see a prosperous Myanmar where the people truly benefit from democratic and economic progress. Sanctions can and should be lifted, but they must be done gradually and in response to concrete reforms, and remain in line with Washington's stated policy to use sanctions as a means for empowering reformers and reducing the influence of hardliners," said Eva Kusuma Sundari, AIPMC President and an Indonesian Member of Parliament.
"It is unforgivable that at the last moment, the world turns its back on these people and gives in to the greed and avarice of businesses whose only agenda is financial profit. The US has the opportunity here to maintain the leverage necessary to ensure reforms continue in the right direction and at the right speed -- it also has a duty to ensure its companies do not fuel human rights abuses or armed conflict through their investments and the appropriate measures, screening processes and legislation must be enacted to ensure that does not happen," she said.
The Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus is a network formed by and for parliamentarians from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries. The aim is advocating for human rights and democratic reform in Southeast Asia.