Delivering the Dividends of Democracy in Burma

May 20, 2016
President Barack Obama stands with Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon, Burma.

Earlier this week, the Administration took steps to support private sector interest in Burma and help the new democratically-elected government.

Specifically, the Administration took sanctions steps intended to support investment and trade with Burma. These steps facilitate the movement of goods within Burma; allow certain incidental transactions related to U.S. individuals residing there; and allow most transactions involving designated financial institutions in Burma.

The sanctions changes are calibrated to maintain pressure on the military and other targeted persons, and to encourage additional democratic reforms.

It’s important that Burma reaps the rewards for its progress. After all, the goal of sanctions is to change behavior, not to punish. That’s why it is critical that we follow through on our commitments to provide sanctions relief when change occurs. After all, sanctions won’t succeed in promoting change if there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

By easing sanctions, as we did earlier this week, we are underscoring our support for the new government, led by President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, to deliver on the dividends of democracy for their people.

Of course, we are also hoping to make doing business in Burma a more enticing prospect. 

Easing sanctions is not an exact science. There is no magic formula for balancing our support for political and economic progress while also maintaining sanctions pressure where needed. As many interested observers have noted, from civil society activists to business leaders, Burma’s progress has been one of vaunted hopes tempered by the realities of a country still emerging from years of international isolation. 

In 2012, just after our initial major sanctions easing, Myanmar was dubbed “the final frontier,” because it was one of the last markets largely untouched by Western business. Market analysts breathlessly speculated about its economic potential: untapped natural resources, its young, large and literate population, and its promising geographic positioning.

But to date in Burma, we haven’t seen the cascade of U.S. investment that some predicted. We have had to rely on the ebb and flow of the free market to identify opportunity. 

I am tremendously proud of those American companies that have forged ahead with this new opportunity. Consumer goods are going strong, from Procter & Gamble to Colgate-Palmolive. We’ve seen new investment by the likes of GAP and Coca-Cola, which are bringing the highest standards of corporate responsibility and raising the bar across the board. 

But, we are clear-eyed about the reality: Burma is still a risky venture for businesses, especially for those in the financial services community. 

Businesses look at more than just the regulatory environment when deciding whether to forge ahead in a nascent market. They look at everything from the political environment to market conditions to social to cultural factors before they make their decision to invest. 

As Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs at the State Department, I have seen those deliberations –- and frankly reluctance -– from the private sector in Burma firsthand. 

When I met with businesses in Yangon and Naypyitaw, I heard two chief complaints about our limited remaining sanctions. 

First, due diligence is difficult in such an opaque business environment, where corporate registration requirements need to be improved and naming conventions are different. 

Second, we heard about the lack of reliable banking channels, which inhibits a broad range of philanthropic, educational, and economic activities. 

We need to remind ourselves how special this moment is. For the first time in half a century, Myanmar is enjoying a democratically-elected, civilian-led government. In the first few weeks of their term, they’ve released hundreds of political prisoners and made strides on national reconciliation. They’ve got their work cut out for them, but their first moves offer great hope for the future. 

Sean Turnell, key economic advisor to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, said that the new government’s top priorities would be “Growth, and jobs, jobs, jobs!”  Former President Thein Sein said that he’d hoped to quadruple the size of the economy in a mere five years. After fifty years of oppressive military rule, you can’t blame them for dreaming big. 

The actions by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) earlier this week make clear that U.S. individuals and companies will not be prevented by sanctions from finding banking partners in Myanmar. OFAC also made updates to provide greater clarity to those seeking to comply with sanctions.

All of our moves are guided by our desire to help them deliver on their jobs and reform agenda.

As Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor said on Wednesday to Washington policy makers, “No transition to democracy takes place overnight. Progress will be measured not just in months and years -- but in decades.”

But ultimately, he said: “I am hopeful about the future of Burma because I have come to know, respect, and admire the people of this great country. We’re betting on them.”

I echo that sentiment and I am betting equally on our American companies and our members of civil society to do their part to step forward and join them as stakeholders in that democratic, inclusive and business-friendly future. 

About the author: About the Author: Charles H. Rivkin serves as the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears on the Huffington Post's Business blog.

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