Myanmar and Washington lobbyists

By Aman Ullah

The government of Myanmar has hired lobbyists in Washington for the first time in more than a decade, signing a contract worth US$840,000 (K840 million) with the Podesta Group,  a powerful US lobbying firm, to represent its interests in Washington, reports The Hill, which covers US politics, on April 16.
The Podesta Group is a lobbying and public affairs firm based in Washington, D.C.,   founded by Tony and John Podesta, with the latter serving as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, and now campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. Connections between governments and other influential actors in Washington are far from unique to Myanmar. Last May, the connection made headlines when officials from the firm attended a meeting in the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe.

Lobbying in the United States describes paid activity in which special interests hire well-connected professional advocates, often lawyers, to argue for specific legislation in decision-making bodies such as the United States Congress. It is a highly controversial phenomenon, often seen in a negative light by journalists and the American public.

The term lobby has etymological roots in the physical structure of the British Parliament, in which there was an intermediary covered room outside the main hall. People pushing an agenda would try to meet with members of Parliament in this room, and they came to be known, by metonymy, as lobbyists, although one account in 1890 suggested that the application of the word “lobby” is American and that the term is not used as much in Britain.

However, the term “lobbying” generally means a paid activity with the purpose of attempting to “influence or sway” a public official – including bureaucrats and elected officials – towards a desired specific action often relating to specific legislation.  If advocacy is disseminating information, including attempts to persuade public officials as well as the public and media to promote the cause of something and support it, then when this activity becomes focused on specific legislation, either in support or in opposition, then it crosses the line from advocacy and becomes lobbying. This is the usual sense of the term “lobbying.” One account suggested that much of the activity of nonprofits was not lobbying per se, since it usually did not mean changes in legislation.

The securing of these services comes as the United States continues to assess how far it can go in its evolving relationship with Naypyidaw, with the country’s historic opening in 2010 and ongoing rapprochement with Washington in peril with stalled reforms ahead of crucial elections later this year. Some – including in the US Congress – remain concerned about the country’s future direction, with critical constitutional reforms being unrealized and lingering problems including those related to ethnic conflict, inter-communal violence and human rights. Some lawmakers have argued that the Obama administration has done too much too soon, and have called for a suspension of further US ‘concessions’ and even restrictions on the regime in Naypyidaw.

According to the Hill Reports, “The government of Myanmar has hired lobbyists in Washington for the first time in more than a decade, signing a contract worth $840,000 with the Podesta Group.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has had a tumultuous history, with colonization giving way to years of military rule. The country is in the midst of political reforms spurred in 2010 that were intended to move the country toward democracy.

The contract comes ahead of crucial elections in the country later this year that could go a long way toward determining whether the country’s rapprochement with the United States continues.”

The contract between Podesta Group and the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, which has been signed by representatives at the embassy, will last 12 months. Each quarter, the country will pay the firm $210,000 — a relatively minor sum compared to other FARA deals

Documents say that the lobby firm “will provide strategic counsel to the principal on strengthening the principal’s ties to the United States government and institutions.”

Podesta Group “will also assist in communicating priority issues in the United States-Myanmar bilateral relationship to relevant U.S. audiences, including the U.S. Congress, executive branch, media, and policy community,” according to a filing with Justice Department.

Washington has begun a slow but cautious embrace of Myanmar in recent years.

Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar in 2012, and traveled to the country again in 2014. His administration has worked to ease some of the sanctions imposed on Myanmar, as long as it makes strides on human rights and democracy.

Many members of Congress remains skeptical, noting the military still has a hold on many parliament seats. The government there also faces accusations of violence and punishing journalists and political prisoners.

Priscilla Clapp, the former US ambassador to Myanmar from 1999 to 2002, told The Hill that the country’s link with the Podesta Group was not surprising given its troubled transition and need to better navigate the American political system.

In late 2015, Myanmar is set for a general election that will be the most monitored in its history, Clapp said, to ensure that it is “free and fair.”

“Nobody expected them to move as fast as they did, or as far, in the first two years,” Clapp said. “That fueled greater expectations for the next two years” and into the present day.

“You end up moving so fast that you hit a wall and you smash your nose — and that’s what ended up happening” in the country, she said.

“The breadth of the transition that’s going on in the country is so wide and so deep that it’s having a lot of unintended consequences in the country and in the society,” Clapp said. “I suspect that this is some of the reason the embassy would want to have a very highly reputable, politically savvy firm representing them here,” she added, “because they don’t have the capacity to maneuver the political system here in the U.S., they want to make sure that the policy community in Washington understands them better.”

Some will undoubtedly view the link between Myanmar and US lobbyists as a way for Naypyidaw to deflect efforts at reform at home by shaping the narrative abroad.

“Rather than really reforming, Burma will pay Washington lobbyist $840K/year to pretend it is,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted on April 15.

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