Big news for Myanmar, but still not the biggest


A vendor sells fruits at a train station in Yangon, Myanmar, May 17, 2012.


Soe Than Win

The US has eased a ban on investments in Myanmar. It does sound big.

And it is. For the first time in decades, American companies will now be able to invest in a broad range of sectors in Myanmar, according to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcment today. 

The policy shift comes after a series of significant reforms in Myanmar — which recently culminated in the election of former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament — and is being touted by major news outlets as "the most significant steps to date" (New York Times) and "the strongest acknowledgement yet" (Bloomberg) of such progress in the long-isolated country.

But the policy shift is not, explicitly, a blanket removal of US sanctions against the country, which it insists on continuing to call Burma. 

More from GlobalPost: Burma Rebooted

In fact, the easing of the investment ban came as part of a renewal of all other restrictions (this happens every year, as part of the National Emergency Act), and US companies are still barred from doing business with entities in Myanmar that have ties to the military.

Which, in a country like Myanmar, is a lot of entities.

According to The Washington Post, "If US companies were barred from working with state-owned enterprises like the country’s oil and gas company — which is currently not included on a US list of blacklisted Myanmar entities — that would effectively exclude them from the petroleum sector, where the previous military regime earned billions."

More from GlobalPost: Myanmar open for business?

As the Post points out, the devil is indeed in the details, and until more of those become clear, the news isn't quite the watershed some are suggesting.

President Barack Obama said as much, according to the Wall Street Journal, one of the news outlets to strike a more cautious tone on this story.

“Burma has made important strides, but the political opening is nascent, and we continue to have concerns, including remaining political prisoners, ongoing conflict and serious human rights abuses in ethnic areas,” the US president said.

Activists are worried that the loosening of investment restrictions has come too soon after reforms, and will thus encourage back-sliding.

Human Rights Watch has asked for an updated list of blacklisted enterprises in Myanmar, to ensure that new business flowing in will actually help people and not fill the coffers of the corrupt.

GlobalPost's Southeast Asia correspondent Patrick Winn has been steadily covering Myanmar's opening. Here are some of his greatest hits:

Burma Rebooted, a three-part series on the country's opening

Myanmar open for business?

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