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February 25, 2013

US Business Delegation Visits Burma

by Daniel Schearf

Burma is hosting its largest delegation of American business executives since U.S. sanctions were eased last year.  Some of the 50 delegates attending a one-day conference expressed great hope, but also concerns, for increasing business ties. 

The Burma and United States Chambers of Commerce on Monday welcomed warming business relations after years of economic restrictions.

The two chambers held a one-day conference in Rangoon with the largest-ever delegation of U.S. companies, ranging from retail and restaurants to finance, insurance and extractive industries.

Jose Fernandez, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs, told the conference Burma is taking concrete steps toward normalizing its financial relations with the international community.  

"As we look toward a more prosperous future together, I would like to emphasize that we in the United States would like to establish broad and deep commercial and business ties with your country across a full range of sectors in your economy," said Fernandez. "But, I also would like to assure you that our efforts here are also part of a larger, regional strategy to integrate this country with trade to China, India, and Southeast Asia."

The two chambers signed a memorandum of understanding to increase business ties.

Fernandez said U.S. businesses would bring with them international business standards for transparency, labor rights, environmental protection, and land use. They would also provide jobs, raise living standards, and help sustainably develop Burma's rich natural resources.

However, he also reminded attendees that U.S. economic sanctions, while suspended, would remain "on the books" in case Burma regresses on reform efforts.

Those suspended sanctions remain a worry for some companies.

Darren Brooks is Asia Pacific senior legal counsel for heavy machine maker Caterpillar, which sells products through a local dealer but is not yet manufacturing in Burma.  He says the restrictions are making them cautious on big investments.

"Right now we would like to see more reliability or more stability in the fact that the sanctions have been lifted.  They are of course temporarily or conditionally lifted right now," said Brooks. "So, it's not like you can come in and invest $100 million right now.  The sanctions could come back tomorrow and we'd be right back where we were a couple of years ago."

The U.S. imposed sanctions on Burma's former military government for abusing human rights and suppressing democracy movements. Burma's economy fell into stagnation under the trade restrictions and the military's economic mismanagement.

The United States began easing limits on business last year as Burma's reform-minded President Thein Sein released hundreds of political prisoners and relaxed controls on the press and the right to protest.

Burmese trade authorities are well aware how the threat of re-imposing sanctions makes outside investors wary.

U Win Aung, President of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says dropping the threat of sanctions is crucial to the country's future.

"It is to be noted that total lifting of sanctions can only enable investors to come and invest without any hesitation in our new era of new economic development," said U Win Augn. "Our people are longing for a better livelihood."

U.S. business delegates also expressed concern about Burma's infrastructure problems with electricity shortages and poor communication links. But others saw opportunity.

Mai Trang Thanh is Vietnam country director for U.S. infrastructure company Honeywell.  She says Burma's lack of development reminds her of the time the U.S. embargo was lifted on Vietnam two decades ago.

"When I first came to Myanmar a few months ago, the first impression was I can immediately recall my excitement of 19 years ago and I met with many people from the government to the private sector people and so I note that the whole country, the whole nation, is really favorable of U.S. support, same as my country 19 years ago," she said.

Andrew Hodges is director of Asia Pacific emerging markets for software giant Microsoft.  He says they were still assessing opportunities in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"No big deals at this point in time.  But, we need to…we have a whole range of different programs that we want to look [at] as we explore newer markets.  And, we need to assess whether those programs are suitable for Myanmar and what we need to do to tweak those programs to suit Myanmar," said Hodges.

To smooth financial transactions for U.S. businesses in Burma, Washington on Friday announced restrictions would be lifted on four banks in Burma.  

Assistant Secretary Fernandez said allowing those banks access to the U.S. financial system was partly a result of companies and rights organizations complaining about lack of access to basic services such as checking accounts.

He urged delegates to the conference to contact them if any problems or misunderstandings arise over remaining sanctions.