Senators press Burma nominee on energy sanctions

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As the Obama administration weighs lifting sanctions as a reward for recent democratic progress in the country, a main point of contention has been whether to allow U.S. companies to partner with the state-owned enterprise that controls all foreign investment in the country’s oil-and-gas industry. Webb and Inhofe wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month urging her not to pick “winners and losers in our economic engagement abroad.”

During Wednesday's hearing, Inhofe said he's heard rumors that the administration wants to “carve out” the U.S. petroleum industry from doing business in the country by “slow rolling” U.S. Treasury licenses. Mitchell said the State Department wants to balance U.S. interests and values and has yet to decide how to proceed.

He acknowledged, however, that “clearly there are other countries that are willing to take up the slack” if the United States doesn't invest in oil and gas in Burma.

Complicating matters, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi has called on foreign governments not to allow their companies to enter into new partnerships at this time with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, saying it lacks transparency and has ties to the military. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) embraced her comments to the International Labor Organization earlier this week, but others are bristling at the perceived affront to U.S. sovereignty.

“It's a little delicate to say that an official from any foreign government should be telling us what sectors we should invest in and not invest in,” Webb said at the hearing.

Mitchell said the administration has seen “encouraging” signs that the Burmese energy sector is “moving in the right direction” but declined to discount the concerns of Suu Kyi, who is a national hero to many Burmese.

“I would never dismiss what she says from our thinking,” Mitchell said. “She is obviously a unique figure representing people in the country. She represents the values that we care about. We will make our own decisions, but we take her thoughts on this as an ongoing conversation that we will have with her.”

Mitchell would be the first U.S. ambassador to Burma since 1990, after the United States broke high-level diplomatic relations following a crackdown on democracy activists. Webb said he would push for his nomination to move forward before the Senate breaks for the July 4 recess at the end of this week.