By WILLIAM BOOT
Thursday, November 25, 2010
BANGKOK — American and European business organizations are reconsidering their position on Burma following the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi, as concern grows among them that economic sanctions have benefited Asian countries prepared to turn a blind eye to junta human rights abuses.
The United States Chamber of Commerce says it is waiting for a “signal” from Suu Kyi on the issue, and the European Union Business Council called for dialogue.
The EU Foreign Affairs Council this week met to discuss policy on Burma following the elections and Suu Kyi’s release.
The council is now “assessing the possibilities for engagement” with Burma’s leadership, but also calls for “all the remaining political detainees to be released without delay,” said Council President Catherine Ashton in a November 22 statement.
Tami Overby, vice president for Asia at the US Chamber of Commerce, said, “It’s fairly clear that the sanctions haven’t brought political change, but instead have outsourced jobs from US firms to their competitors in other countries that trade freely with Myanmar [Burma].”
Overby told the Wall Street Journal: “American firms would urge Congress and the [Obama] administration to consider easing the sanctions if Ms. Suu Kyi and the opposition signal an openness to revisions in the sanctions regime,”
While Western firms have stood on the sidelines, China, Thailand, India and Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries have not only engaged with the Burma military regime but also invested heavily, especially in primary industries and natural resources such a gas.
Proven gas reserves in Burma have climbed to 570 billion cubic meters over the last 10 years, according to a BP Statistical Review. Thailand and, more recently, China, have been the chief beneficiaries.
Chinese companies alone invested US $8 billion in Burma in the first six months of this year, mostly in gas, oil and hydroelectric development projects, according to a Reuters report based on official Burmese statistics.
“Some Western companies certainly are keen to move into Burma’s energy sector, I think the more so since the announcement last week that a Chinese business [Sinopec] has just discovered what appears to be another sizable gas reservoir,” a commercial diplomat with a Western embassy in Bangkok told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
“I think, however, that non-Asian governments will continue to hold back for the time being on any revision of sanctions policies, until they get some endorsement from Aung San Suu Kyi on the issue,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicate subject.
French energy giant Total and the US concern Chevron are still operating in Burma’s lucrative offshore gas fields, excused from sanctions penalties by their respective governments under a so-called “grandfathered” deal which precluded firms already in Burma when economic sanctions were first imposed.
Chevron declined to comment on the latest political developments in Burma and its future business plans there.
“It is in the interest of the EU to re-engage Myanmar [Burma] as it is increasingly evident that the vacuum created by the withdrawal of Western investment is being filled by China, India and Thailand,” said Thaung Tun, writing for the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“If the EU does not change course, it will not only miss the opportunity to pursue commercial interests but have no leverage to affect positive change in Myanmar. The EU should take advantage of its trade review to offer to reinstate the Generalized System of Preferences privileges to Myanmar. The initiative would be regarded as a signal that Europe stands ready to resume mutually beneficial relations,” said Thaung Tun.
Suu Kyi has already hinted that she would be in favor of some improvement in European tourism to Burma. In an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel this week, she noted that the EU is examining its policy on tourism.
“I haven’t had an opportunity to speak with the European Union about this, but it is essential that people see what is actually happening in this country,” the magazine quoted her as saying.
In the big commercial picture, Asian countries continue to lead the way. China, Japan and South Korea have expressed interest in participating in the Thai-led multibillion dollar plan to build a port and petrochemical industrial zone at Tavoy (Dawei) on Burma’s southeast Andaman Sea coast.