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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Burmese President Thein Sein are set to hold landmark talks on Friday as Washington moves to ease sanctions on the once pariah state.
The two leaders will meet in the Cambodian tourist town Siem Reap on the sidelines of a business conference, amid concerns among rights groups that the US is moving too fast, too soon to cash in on Burma’s vast business potential.
Clinton said Thursday that Washington welcomed reforms by Burma’s government over the past year, such as freeing democracy icon Aung Sang Suu Kyi from house arrest and welcoming the opposition back into mainstream politics.
But she acknowledged concerns still remained.
The US move “does not mean we are satisfied that reform is complete or irreversible. Political prisoners remain in detention”, she told leaders of the Asia Regional Forum meeting in Cambodia.
“Ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence continues to undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability, and lasting peace. And fundamental reforms are required to strengthen the rule of law and increase transparency.”
Washington on Wednesday gave the green light for firms to invest in Burma, including in oil and gas, in its greatest loosening of sanctions to reward reforms in the former pariah state after 50 years of military rule.
Under the new rules, US companies will be able to enter into business with state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), but must notify the State Department within 60 days. They are barred though from doing business with the Burmese defence ministry or armed groups.
And all US companies that invest more than $500,000 in Burma will be required to file reports to the State Department each year that show their consideration for human rights, workers’ rights and the environment.
“We are encouraging American businesses to invest in a manner that promotes responsible development and further reform,” Clinton told the forum.
She also announced that a high-level delegation of American business leaders will be visiting Rangoon and Naypyidaw in the coming days.
Suu Kyi described the US move as “nothing significant” and repeated calls for the international community to press MOGE – which was closely linked to the former junta government – for increased transparency.
But Human Rights Watch slammed the decision, saying the United States appeared to have “caved to industry pressure and undercut Aung San Suu Kyi” because it did not insist on reforms in governance and human rights.
Thein Sein was also set to take part in a US-ASEAN business forum Friday in Siem Reap, hosted by Clinton and bringing together the largest ever gathering of American business leaders in Asia.
On Thursday, he urged the West to lift all sanctions against his country as it seeks to implement a second wave of economic reforms.
“It is extremely important that sanctions be lifted – both financial and other economic sanctions – to make possible the sort of trade and investments that this country desperately needs at this time,” he told the Financial Times.
International firms are clamouring for a foothold in resource-rich Burma, left impoverished by decades of mismanagement and isolation under army rule.
The announcement will soothe fears by American businesses that they will lose out to European and Asian competitors that already enjoy access to the potentially lucrative economy.
It also signals Washington’s desire to bolster Thein Sein, a former junta general who surprised the west with a series of dramatic changes since taking power last year.