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Asia-pacific

Clinton meets Burma's president for landmark talks

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2012-07-13

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Burma's President Thein Sein on Friday to improve relations with the military-ruled country, despite criticism from rights groups that foreign investment is increasing faster than democratic reform.

AFP - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Myanmar President Thein Sein on Friday for landmark discussions days after Washington eased its sanctions on the once-pariah state.

The pair began talks in the Cambodian tourist town Siem Reap on the sidelines of a US business conference, after the US on Wednesday gave the green light to firms to invest in Myanmar, including in oil and gas, in its greatest loosening of tough sanctions so far.

It is Clinton's second meeting with Thein Sein after she became the first US Secretary of State to visit Myanmar in half a century during a trip to the country late last year, as reforms took hold of the long military-dominated nation.

Washington has faced criticism from rights groups concerned it is moving too fast in its eagerness to cash in on Myanmar's vast business potential.

But the decision will please US firms eager not to miss out on what some economists expect to be a gold rush in the resource-rich nation.

Asian firms have been doing business in Myanmar for years, while the European Union suspended most of its sanctions against the country in April.

"I am sending a very prestigious business delegation," Clinton told Thein Sein, after shaking hands with the former general, adding that she wanted the representatives to hear his plans.

A high-level group of US business leaders will be visiting Yangon and the capital Naypyidaw in the coming days.

Myanmar on Friday said Thein Sein and Clinton were expected to discuss changes that have swept Myanmar since a quasi-civilian government replaced the military junta last year.

"The meeting shows the support of the US government to Myanmar's reform process," Zaw Htay, director of the president's office, told AFP.

Clinton acknowledged Friday in a speech to a women's forum in the Cambodian tourist town of Siem Reap that in Myanmar as it opens up "there will be a lot of challenges" but said she hoped to see "continuing progress there."

Washington was setting up "protections to ensure that increased American investment advances the reform process" she said, as US firms will have to report on transparency and labour rights.

Myanmar – along with regional neighbours – has called for all sanctions to be lifted as the country embarks on its "second wave" of economic reforms.

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the sanctions decision, but called for greater transparency at state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, which US firms will be able to do business with under the new rules.

Her comments were echoed by influential US Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, who said operations at the organisation "remain non-transparent and the billions of dollars in foreign investment that it receives remain unaccountable to the people and parliament of Burma".

Human Rights Watch went further, saying Washington had "caved to industry pressure" because it did not insist on reforms in governance and human rights.

Thein Sein's comments to the UN Thursday that refugee camps or deportation was the "solution" for stateless Muslim Rohingya, following communal violence last month in western Myanmar, are also likely to alarm Western nations.

Left impoverished by decades of economic mismanagement and isolation under army rule, the country is seen as the next big frontier in Asia for firms wanting to take advantage of its resources, cheap labour force, high growth potential and strategic position between China and India.

Thein Sein told the Singapore Straits Times his country would sign up to an Oslo-based initiative to enhance transparency of payments in the oil and minerals sector.

Clinton is hosting the US-ASEAN business forum in Siem Reap, which is be the largest ever gathering of American corporate leaders in Asia.

Executives from Coca-Cola, Caterpillar, DHL and Goldman Sachs are among dozens of US companies travelling to the conference.

 

Date created : 2012-07-13

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