US agency accused of sanctions busting

The US government aid agency USAID has denied charges levelled by a Burma campaign group that it is breaching US sanctions on the military-ruled country.

The prominent Washington-based US Campaign for Burma (USCB) said in March that USAID funding of the ASEAN Competitive Enhancement (ACE) project, which looks to promote the tourism and textiles industries of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, was “not in line with US-Burma policy”.

Burma is a member of ASEAN, but is subject to strict US trade and financial sanctions. A campaign to boycott tourism in Burma has received strong backing from various campaign groups, although this has not been factored into the US sanctions package.

But USAID’s funding of the ACE remains a “violation” of US policy and should be challenged by Congress, USCB advocacy director Jennifer Quigley has told TTR Weekly travel website.

“The spirit of [US Burma sanctions] was to keep American dollars out of the hands of the Burmese regime,” she said. “The way the Burmese tourism economy is structured, it is not a stretch to assume the regime would benefit financially.”

USAID communications director, Hal Lipper, defended the charges by saying that ASEAN had requested funding to Southeast Asia “as a region”.

One of the main arguments against tourism in Burma is that, with the majority of property and services owned by the ruling regime, tourist money would eventually find its way into government coffers. Moreover, rights groups have said that many tourist resorts and services were built using forced labour.

Detained Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had previously urged tourists to stay away from the country whilst it remains under military rule, although this stance appears have softened in line with growing international engagement with the junta.

The pro-tourism lobby argues however that interaction with locals, although often highly restricted by the government, can contribute towards pulling the country out of decades of isolation.

Tourism currently only contributes to around 0.7 percent of Burma’s GDP, meaning that the boycott is largely symbolic and would have little tangible effect on the country’s economy. The impact of sanctions has also been lessened by Burma’s growing trade with ASEAN countries, as well as China and India.

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