The recent visit of Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, to the United States has highlighted the positive steps the country has taken in recent months as it slowly undergoes democratic transformation. However, largely lost in the media coverage and public discourse is the fact that many great challenges remain, including the continuation of attacks against ethnic minorities by the Burmese military.
We’ve continued to highlight human rights violations and violence against minorities in Burma, and warned about the likelihood that investment may exacerbate the situation. Despite our warnings — and those of other human rights groups and investors — the Obama administration has plowed ahead, expediting the removal of all sanctions put in place by previous presidents and seeking to waive a congressional ban on imports.
The U.S. government has established “Reporting Requirements on Responsible Investment in Burma,” but these requirements for U.S. businesses looking to enter Burma are weak. Furthermore, there is a lack of clarity regarding accountability measures to ensure that companies comply.
On October 4, 21 investors, 17 rights groups and over 3,300 Burma activists submitted three separate, but coordinated sets of comments to the U.S. Department of State in support of strengthened reporting requirements.
In a statement released on October 5, United to End Genocide, EarthRights International, Freedom House, Physicians for Human Rights and U.S. Campaign for Burma expressed their alarm about the weak requirements:
We continue to be deeply concerned by the U.S. government’s decision to lift all remaining sanctions, and allow corporations unrestricted investment access to Burma despite widespread corruption, ongoing human rights violations and a total lack of rule of law.
The groups went on to say that:
Although U.S. companies will be required to report on their investments, the current requirements lack specificity about enforcement and consequences for non-compliance. Further, existing loopholes enable companies to designate information as ‘confidential’ as a way to avoid public scrutiny. The U.S. government should take immediate steps to ensure that there is a strong regulatory framework that can effectively promote accountability and transparency.
Now, the State Department has some decisions to make. Time will tell if the State Department decides to strengthen the reporting requirements or if outstanding loopholes will continue to undermine accountability and transparency. The strength of the requirements will be a contributing factor in determining whether investment in Burma supports or undercuts respect for human rights and democratic transformation.