YANGON, Myanmar – If you’re American and want to do business in Myanmar, there’s a list of people and companies you have to steer clear of by law. But it leaves off a former minister’s son whom U.S. officials suspected of brokering arms deals with North Korea, and high-rolling relatives of the man who led the repressive military government for 19 years.
The Obama administration didn’t add anyone to the U.S. government’s Myanmar sanctions list over 3 1/2 years, despite recommendations from the U.S. Embassy in Yangon to blacklist hundreds of top officials and their business cronies, as well as military and private companies, according to an Associated Press examination of hundreds of pages of government documents, and more than a dozen interviews with officials and business leaders in Myanmar and Washington.
The reason: Washington was seeking to win the confidence of Myanmar’s top leadership and encourage them to stick to the path of democratic reform. The result: The list is full of gaps.
The administration has said it wants U.S. companies to set a gold standard for investment and foster a fairer, more transparent way of doing business in Myanmar. But the last powerful tool it has to punish the bad guys and encourage the good ones has fallen way out of date, even though legislation instructs the government to keep the list current.
That risks reinforcing a corrupt economic system that has concentrated wealth in the hands of politically connected businessmen.
Human rights activists accuse the Obama administration of moving too fast to reward the reformist government of Thein Sein, who on Monday will become the first president of Myanmar to visit the White House in 47 years – a trip during which he’ll also woo U.S. business leaders.
The U.S. has suspended broad restrictions on investment and trade with Myanmar. It still forbids imports of ruby and jade from Myanmar and doing business with military-owned companies. But the restriction with the greatest effect for investors is against dealings with individuals and companies on the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals list, which identifies those linked to sanctioned governments, terrorists and drug traffickers.
The European Union lifted its sanctions last month, although like the U.S., it retains an arms embargo. That leaves America’s sanctions list as the most important international restriction on doing business in Myanmar. While not binding elsewhere, the list affects government and business thinking as far afield as Singapore and London.
Decades of quiet deal-making have nurtured a small business elite that has profited, sometimes brutally and most often dishonestly, from relationships with Myanmar’s military leaders and a flood of Chinese money.
With little information available about who owns what in Myanmar, it can be difficult to determine whom a potential business partner is affiliated with. Americans who violate the sanctions could face fines or prison time, though a letter of warning is more likely for those who acted in good faith.
The list in no way lists all the individuals who would be objectionable to doing business with. And there are individuals on there for purely political and unvalidated reasons, said Rachel Calvert at the consulting company IHS, who helps advise U.S. companies on investing in Myanmar.
U.S. companies, for example, are still free to invest with the wife, eight children and grandson of former military leader Than Shwe – all of whom were sanctioned by the European Union in the past.
They also can team up with the sons of a former minister of industry, Aung Thaung, who was a hard-line leader of a pro-military organization accused of conducting a 2003 attack on a convoy carrying opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, killing a number of her supporters. Aung Thaung is now a top figure in the ruling party.