The Cable

Business crowd gives Thein Sein a warm welcome

You could almost hear the geopolitical tectonic plates shifting as the 200-odd guests clinked their glasses of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc and Meiomi Pinot Noir in honor of Thein Sein, the reformist president of Burma and the toast of Washington this week. Sein — the first Burmese leader to visit the U.S. capital in 47 ...

You could almost hear the geopolitical tectonic plates shifting as the 200-odd guests clinked their glasses of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc and Meiomi Pinot Noir in honor of Thein Sein, the reformist president of Burma and the toast of Washington this week.

Sein — the first Burmese leader to visit the U.S. capital in 47 years — was speaking at a swank U.S. Chamber of Commerce gala dinner put on in cooperation with the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and sponsored by a raft of American companies, including GE, Ford, P&G, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, MasterCard, ExxonMobil, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

U.S. officials Robert Hormats, the undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, and Derek Mitchell, the U.S. ambassador to Burma, credited Sein with shepherding what Hormats called "remarkable progress over the course of a couple years" in bringing one of the world’s most isolated countries into the international system.

"They are tremendous partners," Mitchell said of the Burmese government.

Mitchell — who like Hormats referred to the country by its official name, Myanmar– noted that Sein had used his free time in Washington to visit Mt. Vernon, implicitly comparing the Burmese leader to George Washington and subtly prodding him to follow the American founding father’s example by solidifying the principle of civilian control of the military.

The State Department is working assiduously to promote U.S. investment in what is currently one of the hottest growth stories in the world — a gold rush to which Mitchell aluded, joking to the crowd, "I feel like I’ve hosted every single one of you over the past several months."

A GE official, James Suciu, announced at the dinner that GE is opening two offices in the next two weeks: One in Yangon and one in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital. The company expects to be doing as much as half a billion dollars in annual revenue in Burma in the next few years.

Several oil companies, including event co-sponsor Chevron, have been battling with human rights groups over a forthcoming State Department rule governing investment in Burma, a resource-rich country that was once one of the most heavily sanctioned in the world.

Sein himself said little of interest, hitting all the right buzzwords: accountability, transparency, market economy, "arbitration systems in line with international standards," and so on — though he did surprise his audience by speaking in reasonably fluid, albeit heavily accented English.

"We want to lay the foundation for a robust middle class," he said. "We would like to invite U.S. businesses to come and invest in Myanmar."

Sein met earlier in the day with U.S. President Barack Obama, who told him, "we want you to know that the United States will make every effort to assist you on what I know is a long, and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct path to follow."

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