US continues to target Myanmar tycoons

Yangon International Airport, run by Asia World, which is a target of US sanctions. Source: Wikimedia

A US decision to reduce its economic sanctions against Myanmar could unlock investment as the country tries to alleviate poverty, its new civilian government has announced.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy faces a daunting task of rehabilitation despite the decrepit infrastructure, civil wars in the resource-rich borderlands and the continued influence of the armed forces and their closely related tycoon friends who still dominate the economy.

Washington relaxed several financial and trade embargoes this week in recognition of the “historic milestone” of civilian government and has relaxed sanctions to reward reforms since the start of democratic reforms in 2011. However, there are numerous names on its blacklists as the US seeks to push further changes and promote human rights.

NLD spokesman Zaw Htay said the government “really welcomes” the US move.

“It could boost trade between the two countries and this raises hopes for the economy,” he said. He opined that firms might be tempted to trade with Myanmar now the climate was becoming more business-friendly.

Suu Kyi said the sanctions were imposed for a particular reason which would be removed in time, while remaining typically cryptic. The sanctions were not a big problem and would not hurt the people, she told the Burmese media. “We have the strength and the means to overcome any obstacles that may be imposed at this time,” Suu Kyi said, saying that the US would remain a “good friend”.

Coca-Cola, Pepsi, KFC, Chevrolet and Ford have already established a presence in the country while the lifting of sanctions further eases constraints on US firms looking to invest.

Seven state-run firms previously blacklisted for being part of the former junta were de-listed because they now report to civilian ministries, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said.

Three state-owned banks were also removed from the sanctions list and authorised dealings will be allowed with two military-run banks, opening up all the union’s banks to US business.

The US also extended permission for firms to trade through Myanmar’s ports and airports, many of which are operated by blacklisted cronies.

The sanctioned business magnate Steven Law and his vast Asia World empire runs Yangon’s busiest port, Yangon International Airport and it handles around half the nation’s freight.

Law’s late father Lo Hsing Han was a notorious heroin trafficker and he remains on the sanctions list along with Asia World and six affiliated firms added to the blacklist.

Asia World refused to comment.