Thursday, December 3, 2015

Myanmar's lobbyists could face chopping block after historic election

A lucrative K Street contract with the government of Myanmar may be in jeopardy following a historic election that saw the democracy movement in the country capture a majority in its parliament.

In April, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, also known as Burma, signed a contract with Podesta Group worth $840,000 for a year of services.

Tapped to lobby for the nation were Mark Tavlarides, the director of the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration, and veteran reporter John Anderson — bringing advocacy and public relations together.

On Friday, an election tally officially gave a party run by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi a historic majority in the country’s parliament, shocking the military-backed governing party.

The contest represented the first freely held elections in the country in 25 years, and gives Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) the opportunity to choose a new president. The military, however, will still have considerable muscle in the government, will hold on to a quarter of its parliamentary seats.

Myanmar President Thein Sein has pledged a peaceful transfer of power.

Podesta Group has held meetings with congressional offices, the State Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and several Democratic and Republican staffers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, according to a filing with the Justice Department in July. They also interacted and met with freelance reporter Steve Hirsch, who frequently writes on U.S.-South East Asia policy.
The forms only say that “U.S.-Myanmar relations” and “Myanmar public relations” were discussed in correspondence and meetings with high-level officials, Capitol Hill aides and a couple journalists.

The contract may be nixed before it is set to expire next year, though, as Suu Kyi has vocally criticized the hiring of a lobbying firm.

“I’m interested to know the motive behind it. [The government] said they hired the group to lobby for them,” she said during an interview on Radio Free Asia, according to The Irrawaddy, a nonprofit organization that reports on Burma and Southeast Asia. “To lobby for what? The responsibility of the government is to serve the interests of its citizens. If it can fulfill this duty, why bother to hire such a group?”

The fee of $70,000 per month stipulated in contract documents with the Podesta Group is relatively low for a deal under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). On the higher end, Egypt’s government pays Glover Park Group $250,000 per month.

Ko Ko Hlaing, an adviser to Myanmar’s president, told The Irrawaddy earlier this year that the country added some Washington firepower to ensure that policymakers better understood the country that has been undergoing changes in recent years.

“The reason is simple,” he told the publication. “The U.S. is the world’s biggest power. Although it has reduced sanctions against our country, they have not been totally lifted. So, there remains obstacles to our reform process even though the process is doing better than in the past.”

“If the reforms take shape quickly and the U.S. also has a better understanding of us, it would bring greater benefits to our people,” he added.

In the 1990s, a decisive election that handed Suu Kyi’s party a landslide victory resulted in the army nullifying the decision and tightening its grip on power. She then spent a total of 15 years under house arrest, between 1989 and 2010.

Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, said that many were “haunted” by that past experience.

“What we’re seeing thus far that is different, again, is congratulations from the military and the leadership of the [Union Solidarity and Development Party] USDP to the NLD on their performance in the election and a commitment to respect that result,” he said during a press briefing on Thursday. “That alone I think speaks to enormous progress that’s been made in Burma, even as there are many more issues to be dealt with.”

The firm does not comment on its activities under FARA, beyond the detailed disclosures required by law. A firm or individual must register under FARA when they paid by a foreign government or entity to influence policy or public opinion in the United States.
Overall, Podesta Group earned more than $4.2 million in FARA revenue last year, according to a figure it provided to The Hill. It earned about $25.1 million in federal lobbying revenue, which ranked it third among all K Street firms.