Burma’s government has inked a deal with one of Washington DC’s most powerful lobbying groups ahead of the critical 2015 elections.
The US$840,000 deal with the Podesta Group will see the interests of President Thein Sein’s regime represented in the highest American corridors of power. The Burmese government’s standing with both the US government and US institutions has improved dramatically since Burma’s now nominally civilian government took over in 2011, with economic sanctions lessened and diplomatic channels restored.
Podesta have formerly represented Nouri al-Maliki’s government of Iraq, as well as ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, for which they successfully worked to stall a Senate bill which called on Egypt to halt human rights abuses, according to a 2011 New York Times report.
Simon Billenness of the US Campaign for Burma told DVB that this development represents Naypyidaw’s attempts to shore up its US interests, noting: “The Burmese regime’s relationship with the US government, particularly congress, has grown worse over the past year.”
US President Barack Obama has offered praise to the Burmese regime, while also expressing the need for caution, telling reporters that “much hard work remains”, when he met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2014. Before his visit, more than 50 members of congress sent him a letter drawing attention to Burma’s backtracking on reforms.
“The fact that the regime has hired the Podesta Group further demonstrates that the regime is trying to improve its relations with the US through expensive lobbying instead of simply honouring its pledges to hold free and fair elections and end its abuses of human rights,” says Billenness.
The deal comes at a time when Thein Sein’s regime is in need of good PR on the global stage. Billenness adds: “At present, the regime has much that it needs the Podesta Group to downplay in Washington, including a failure to amend the constitution, and the brutal and ongoing crackdown on the students demonstrating for education reform.”
The firm’s specialisms include “ally recruitment”, “influencer engagement” and “reputation management/ positioning”, according to their website.
“I think it is completely irrelevant to the interests of the more than 90 percent of the population who are buried in poverty,” says Dr Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst of Burma.
“We cannot say if it will aid Burma’s democratic transition,” he added.
Podesta did not respond to a request for comment from DVB.
In May 2014, representatives of Podesta attended a meeting with the Burmese authorities and humanitarian overseers in Sittwe, Arakan State, Mizzima reported last year, amid a flare up in communal violence which forced aid workers and NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontières, to flee the area.
According to the compulsory documentation supplied to the US Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) dated 10 April, Podesta will act through the Burmese Ambassador to the US Kyaw Myo Htut.
Podesta defined the scope of their intended work for the Burmese government as to: “provide government relations and public relations services to strengthen the ties between Republic of the Union of Myanmar and United States institutions, as well as other services that may be agreed by the Parties in writing,” and will include “political activities”.
John Podesta, who founded the firm alongside his brother Anthony Podesta in 1988, worked as White House chief-of-staff during the Clinton presidency, and has recently been appointed has the chairman of Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.