Kerry in Myanmar to Urge Reforms to Encourage Investment

Myanmar can still count on the U.S. as a partner in its transition to democracy and must do more to improve human rights, said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Elections set for next year will “absolutely be a benchmark moment for the whole world to be able to assess the direction Burma’s moving in,” he said at the close of the Asean Regional Forum in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Kerry spoke before boarding a flight to Yangon to visit Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 during her 15-year detention for opposing the country’s former military regime.

“When I was last here in 1999, I visited with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest,” Kerry said. “Today she sits in parliament and people here are openly debating the future direction of this country.”

The military, which ran the country for five decades, still holds sway over the quasi-civilian government that came to power in 2010 and has been criticized for not doing enough to improve human rights and rule of law. The elections in 2012 that brought Suu Kyi to parliament also led to an easing of sanctions that prompted an investment boom as companies such as Coca Cola Co. and Gap Inc. rushed to tap Myanmar’s underdeveloped economy.

Ethnic Violence

Everything isn’t “hunky dory” in Myanmar, Kerry said.

The country is still plagued by lingering rights issues, including “intimidation, harassment, attacks, arrests and prosecution of journalists for reporting on issues deemed too sensitive or critical of those in power,” UN special rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee said after a 10-day visit to the country in mid-July.

She also highlighted the “systematic discrimination” against the Rohingya Muslim minority as communal violence between the Buddhist community and Muslims recurs in northwestern Rakhine state.

“The serious crises in Rakhine and elsewhere, profound development challenges to raise the country’s standard of living, ethnic and religious violence that still exists, fundamental questions regarding constitutional reform and of course, the role of the military remain significant challenges on the road ahead,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, announced the easing of some U.S. sanctions in 2012 -- lifting some travel bans and naming an ambassador to Burma for the first time since 1988 -- as the Obama administration’s way to encourage acceleration of legal, economic and constitutional reforms.

The move to relax some sanctions against Myanmar came as the country’s lawmakers reached out to political dissidents and lifted repressive measures imposed by the former military junta, creating an opening for foreign companies.

In the fiscal year that ended March 31, contracted foreign direct investment in Myanmar nearly tripled from a year earlier to $4 billion, creating 90,000 new jobs, according to the Myanmar government. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the country’s economic growth accelerated to 7.5 percent in 2013 and expects it to continue.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.