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US caught in awkward embrace of Myanmar 'crony'

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 25, 2013 at 7:46 pm •  Published: February 25, 2013
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"The value of the list is we continue to have concerns about human rights abuses, as well as continued political prisoners, continued military ties to North Korea and corruption. That list is a valuable tool for addressing those concerns," he said.

Win Aung, who also heads the Dagon Group of Companies, with interests in timber, rubber, energy and construction, urged the United States to remove all its sanctions against Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"We request your government to support us with a total lifting of sanctions for the benefit of the majority of our people," Win Aung said.

U.S. companies have welcomed the easing of sanctions, but many say the fact that sanctions have been suspended, rather than eliminated, discourages long-term investment and that the welter of remaining regulations is a drain on time and resources.

"You can't do a lot of direct investment if there's the specter of it being taken away tomorrow," said Darren Brooks, senior corporate counsel for Caterpillar Asia. "It's a little bit of a minefield. We're trying to tiptoe around it and do things correctly."

The latest sign of the ambivalence of U.S. foreign policy came Friday, when the government responded to pressure from U.S. business groups by allowing U.S. companies to transact with four Myanmar banks that are still on the U.S. sanction list. Two of the banks, Myanma Economic Bank and Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank, are state owned. Asia Green Development Bank and Ayeyarwady Bank are privately owned.

Asia Green Development Bank is owned by Tay Za, who was described by the U.S. Treasury in 2008 as an arms dealer and financial henchman of the former military regime. Ayeyarwady Bank is owned by Zaw Zaw, who was described as "one of Burma's up-and-coming cronies" in a June 2009 leaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. He has not been publicly linked to arms or drug dealing.

"American corporations are very late in every business sector," said businessman Aung Aung, whose oil and gas and hotel companies have alliances with Korean, Indian and Russian partners. "Asian countries, like India and especially China, have already dominated the market. It's difficult for American companies to compete."

The U.S. ranked 13th in foreign investment in Myanmar as of Jan. 31, according to Myanmar's Directorate of Investment and Company Administration. The U.S. accounted for just 0.6 percent of approvals by dollar volume — less than the Netherlands, France and Vietnam. China ranked number one with a 33.9 percent share of foreign investment approvals, followed by Thailand.