Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Asian countries, and Myanmar in particular, to embrace human rights and political openness as crucial components in attracting investment and driving economic growth.
“Promoting economic activity in this region requires more than just encouraging businesses to invest and trade,” Clinton told a meeting of the U.S.-Asean Business Council in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where Myanmar’s President Thein Sein also addressed the group. “It also requires creating and defending the conditions in which economic activity can flourish over the long run.”
Clinton underscored themes she has stressed throughout a week-long trip through Southeast Asia, highlighting the contrast between the U.S. approach to economic development and China’s in the process. Worker’s rights, improved labor conditions and women’s economic participation are key to “widening the circle of prosperity,” she said. That, in turn, will help rebalance the global economy as a rising middle class would allow Asia to purchase more, Clinton said.
In an hour-long meeting with Thein Sein, Clinton pledged U.S. support for Myanmar as it slowly liberalizes its political system and takes advantage of sanctions easing by the U.S. President Barack Obama announced on July 12.
“I want to hear from you about your plans for the economy,” Clinton told Myanmar’s leader. “We want to help you keep going. We are very committed.”
“I am very pleased to see our bilateral relations improving dramatically,” Thein Sein said, speaking through a translator as he smiled and shook Clinton’s hand in the garden courtyard of a local hotel. “We are pleased that Obama eased the sanctions.”
Obama this week authorized U.S. companies to invest in Myanmar for the first time in about 15 years, including with a state-run oil firm that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged multinationals to avoid.
The U.S.-Asean gathering drew 55 U.S. companies, many of which will be part of a 70-strong delegation leaving for Myanmar tomorrow to explore business opportunities there. Companies at the meeting include closely held Cargill Inc. of Minneapolis; Google Inc. of Mountain View, California; Goldman Sachs Group Inc. of New York; Boeing Co. of Chicago; and General Motors Co. of Detroit.
“We’re excited about what lies ahead and we’re very supportive about President Thein Sein’s economic and political reforms,” Clinton said, calling this week a “milestone” in relations.
Greater openness, the rule of law and respect for human rights are key to these companies’ willingness to invest, Clinton said.
“Will entrepreneurs be able to start businesses, confident that they know all the necessary regulations, that the contracts they sign will be enforced and disputes fairly resolved,” Clinton said. “Or will they operate in uncertainty, confront constant corruption, and perhaps give up on their aspirations altogether?”
In their meeting, Thein Sein told Clinton how much he appreciated the opportunity to encourage U.S. investment in Myanmar, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to be identified.
Clinton touched on human rights in their meeting, raising the challenge of internally displaced minorities such as the Rohingyas and Myanmar’s jailing of workers for the United Nations and nonprofit organizations.
Thein Sein told Clinton his nation hopes to develop value-added businesses and end its reliance on extractive industries, such as logging and mining. Myanmar ships raw teak, not finished lumber, he said, and though his country is a rubber exporter, it has to import tires.
The Myanmar president also expressed interest in developing the country’s information technology, particularly connecting some of its remote villages, and improving child and maternal health services, the official said.
“The people of Myanmar want to see true change in the country” and so the government was pursuing that goal, Thein Sein told the business council, speaking in fluent English.
He described rules that protect freedom of speech and civil society. He expressed an interest in developing democracy within the country and described efforts to make peace with dissident groups. He said Myanmar understands the importance of transparency.
He also made an appeal for a further easing of sanctions.
“It is regrettable that we do not receive any assistance from any international monetary institutions” such as the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank, because of sanctions, Thein Sein said. Sanctions restrain Myanmar from doing so and from developing economic relations with other countries, the president said.
“We are confident that on the basis of mutual respect, our countries will be able to develop mutually beneficial cooperation,” Thein Sein said.
In her speech to the business gathering, Clinton said U.S. exports to Asean exceeded $76 billion in 2011, a 42 percent increase since 2009.
“There is a great deal of potential for our economic activity to grow,” Clinton said.
Southeast Asian economies have grown rapidly by relying on exports “but this export-driven model may have taken this region as far as it can go,” Clinton said.
Clinton said that’s why the Group of 20 nations and others have called for rebalancing the global economy so that developed nations build more at home and sell more abroad as developing countries create a larger middle class that can fuel demand for domestic and imported goods and services.
“This is the next phase of Asia’s growth,” Clinton said. “It is the future of the global economy.”