ResourcesPress Release

US Allows American Companies into Burma Despite Ongoing Human Rights Concerns

For Immediate Release

The US Administration announced today that US companies will be able to invest in Burma, a country long closed to US businesses because of the Burmese government’s deplorable human rights record.

The Administration announced the issuance of general licenses to US companies, and issued an Executive Order that prohibits US companies from doing business with individuals or entities implicated in human rights violations. The announcement did not mention any accountability mechanisms to keep US companies from fueling human rights violations if they violated the terms of the Executive Order.

PHR sharply criticizes the Administration for abandoning its foreign policy responsibilities in favor of a policy overhaul which allows US investors to move into Burma without binding accountability for human rights concerns. PHR had previously called for a comprehensive and mandatory licensing system under which US investors had to document that any US investment would not directly contribute to human rights violations in that country. 

Burma has made some progress in recent months, culminating in the election of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi to Parliament. However, PHR has conducted surveys of human rights violations and humanitarian needs in various ethnic communities in Burma, and has found high prevalence of human rights violations on the part of the Burmese military. Abuses were especially high in areas where development projects, such as oil and gas extraction or industrial development, were underway. Many of these projects are run by foreign companies.  

The violence in Arakan State in western Burma, where tensions between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya, have erupted into violence that has left an estimated 70,000 people displaced from their homes. It is this ongoing violence, fueled by a lack of rule of law and full political participation by Burma’s ethnic people, that creates the backdrop for Clinton’s announcement today.

The US government should not usher American companies into Burma until the Burmese government establishes effective accountability mechanisms for human rights violations, releases all remaining political prisoners, and allows humanitarian aid organizations full access to those in need. The failure of the US to exclude businesses from operating in problematic sectors such as oil and gas sends a clear message—that the US government is putting American business interests ahead of the concerns of the people of Burma. Human rights groups and local communities have documented the forced labor, forced displacement, and other human rights violations that perpetually accompany investment in these sectors. Allowing companies to invest in these areas without firm accountability mechanisms for violating the Executive Order likely will result in greater human rights abuse.   

“Investing in Burma is still extremely risky despite some reforms in the country,” said Burma Project Director Bill Davis. “And more important than the risk to companies and their shareholders is the devastating impact investment will have on ethnic communities that have borne the brunt of the military’s abusive tactics for decades. The US should not swing the door open to companies without firm measures to make sure that they will be held accountable for human rights violations.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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Kevin Short

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