USAID denies it has violated either the letter or spirit of US legislation on aid to Burma by funding the ASEAN Competitiveness Enhancement (ACE) Project, according to the agency’s communications director, Hal Lipper. He was responding to a US Campaign on Burma statement that claimed the project would be challenged by senators and may have to be reviewed.
Earlier in the month, Washington-based US Campaign for Burma advocacy director, Jennifer Quigley, told TTR Weekly: “To my knowledge, Congress is aware of this project, and I believe they may require USAID to change the project as a result of this violation.”
Questions have since been filed with US senators seeking clarification on the alleged infringement of sanction rules that strictly apply to USAID projects.
The US$8 million ACE project aims to build commercial competitiveness in ASEAN’s tourism and textiles industries. Approximately, US$4 million of the 2008 to 2013 ACE budget goes to a tourism marketing campaign called “Southeast Asia: Feel the warmth” that is built around a consumer website that will drive tourist bookings to the 10 countries of ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member.
The official blurb on the USAID funded website www.Southeastasia.org (About US) identifies the beneficiaries of the campaign as: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Mr. Lipper identifies the beneficiary as a non-entity and somewhat ill-defined “Southeast Asia.”
“ACE Project does not and has not promoted tourism to Burma. The ACE Project promotes tourism to Southeast Asia as a region,” he said. “ASEAN, as part of its economic integration strategy, asked USAID to provide support in the tourism sector. ASEAN’s strategy is to promote tourism to Southeast Asia.”
Technically, Southeast Asia is not an accurate description of the project’s parameters as the region also contains East Timor and Papua New Guinea, while ASEAN would support efforts to drive tourism to just 10 member countries. His insistence that USAID project is not promoting Burma runs counter to the website’s editorial content that has 108 references to the country, paid for through an ACE budget.
Earlier, US Campaign for Burma concluded: “The spirit of [US Burma sanctions] was to keep American dollars out of the hands of the Burmese regime. The way the Burmese tourism economy is structured, it is not a stretch to assume the regime would benefit financially.
“Additionally, US legislation that governs how the US can spend government funding has clear guidelines for how USAID can [use] funds in regard to Burma, and this USAID project would run counter to those guidelines.”
In its own documents, ACE explains that the project is designed to encourage travelers to visit two or three rather than a single country in the ASEAN community.
As the least traveled-destination in the bloc, Myanmar stands to gain the most value from the USAID investment, particularly in technology. All the other countries have sophisticated websites that drive tourism bookings through partner organizations. The exception is Myanmar where tourism lags behind due to limited Internet access and few if any internationally-recognized secure payment systems. The new website addresses these issues.
Mr. Lipper admits that there are limitations on how the project can function in Myanmar, mainly on housekeeping expenses such as travel costs and per diems. He stated: “The US government has made a decision to support ASEAN, which includes Burma as a member. As with other ASEAN support programs, we avoid providing assistance to Burma by not paying any Burma-specific costs.”
The ACE project refused to fund travel expenses of a team that was due to tour the 10 countries to collate data for an upcoming marketing tourism strategy plan.
In addition to the Southeast Asia branding campaign, USAID is funding the remake of the Greater Mekong Sub-region consumer website www.exploremekong.org that will concentrate on driving travel to a six-member country bloc – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and two provinces of China (Yunnan and Guangxi).
Exploremekong.org is a carbon copy of southeastasia.org with the same booking tool and similar commercial objectives.
Since 1998, USAID states funding has been limited to supporting democracy in Myanmar and pro-democracy groups outside Myanmar and providing humanitarian assistance such as primary health care and basic education support to refugees living in border refugee camps and emergency relief during the Cyclone Nargis.