In the Loop: Navigating sanctions against Burma


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at the 47th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Naypyidaw, Burma, on Aug. 10. (Nicolas Asfouri/AP)

The State Department was tied in knots a few weeks ago trying to explain how Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his traveling party helped line the pockets of one of Burma’s richest men, despite the fact that he is on an American sanctions blacklist.

“It was not ideal — obviously, I think we can all say that — but in no way diminishes our efforts to implement sanctions still on the books,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Our colleague Anne Gearan was on the trip and gave the Loop the details:

During a diplomatic visit, Kerry, his staff, security personnel and traveling reporters stayed at a hotel owned by Burmese businessman Zaw Zaw, who is among the “cronies” of the former ruling military junta whom the Treasury Department lists as specially designated nationals.

The Washington Post was among those shelling out more than $200 per night (cash only, please) for a room at the plush (but rather strange) Lake Garden Hotel in Burma’s newly built capital, Naypyidaw.

The sanctions designation freezes U.S. financial assets of those listed and — this is the important detail — forbids most U.S. business dealings with them. The State Department said the hotel stay does not bust the sanctions because transactions related to travel are exempt.

The Burmese Foreign Ministry assigned hotel space for delegations visiting the capital for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Harf said. The United States requested a change of hotels because of the sanctions designation, but the Burmese would not comply, Harf said Thursday.

The small capital has limited hotel rooms, and Kerry’s large party has security and space requirements that limit the selection further, State Department officials said. Also, given the vast business dealings common to the SDN-listed cronies, it would be hard if not impossible to find any hotel not linked to their holdings.

The Lake Garden has a sprawling campus ringing a picturesque lake near the conference center. The enormous rooms have cathedral ceilings, bathtubs big enough for a pony and industrial-size cans of insecticide thoughtfully placed beside the bed.

The brand-new hotel isn’t officially open yet, staff politely said, and doesn’t have all its paperwork in order to process credit cards. Hence the cash-only basis for rooms and food.

They prefer crisp, new, U.S. $100s.

Painting the town red, pink

Since leaving office in 2009, former president George W. Bush hasn’t seemed too nostalgic for his days in the White House.

But next month, Bush 43 will return to Washington to participate in an event focused on one issue he has carried on post-presidency: the HIV/AIDS fight.

Bush’s years in office will always be linked to the fight against terrorism, the Iraq War and later the Wall Street bank bailout. But even his fiercest critics agree that one of Bush’s greatest successes in office was his commitment to eradicating AIDS in Africa.

Bush will be the main attraction at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) annual Research and Hope Awards ceremony on Sept. 10, according to the invitation. Each year, the event focuses on progress in combating a particular disease. This year it’s HIV/AIDS.

Bush doesn’t spend a lot of time in Washington (he has taken up retirement hobbies such as painting and writing), but when he does make a rare appearance, it has been focused on global health or human rights initiatives.

He was here in August for the White House’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, where he spoke about public health needs on the continent. In May 2012, he gave a speech in Washington to launch his “Freedom Collection,” a project to promote democracy worldwide. In 2011, he attended an event at the State Department to announce the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon Partnership, a global health program to fight breast cancer and cervical cancer.

His spokesman did not immediately return requests for comment.

Bush may be in town twice in two months, but don’t expect to see him hanging around D.C. any longer than he has to. At the 2012 freedom event, he quipped, “I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington.”

Sitting there in limbo

The Senate could barely muster the energy before its August recess to clear more than a handful of ambassadorial nominees, who, as we’ve documented in this column, have long been waiting for their confirmation votes. Among those who did get through was Michael Hoza, the new ambassador to Cameroon.

Our colleague Frances Stead Sellers attended his swearing-in ceremony and wrote this for the Loop:

Hoza, who returned to the States last summer from a posting in Moscow, has been living for the past year in temporary housing in Falls Church with his school-age son, waiting for a floor vote in the gridlocked Senate.

That vote finally occurred shortly after The Washington Post wrote about Hoza and several other ambassadors waiting in limbo.

Among the celebratory crowd in the State Department’s Treaty Room this month for Hoza’s swearing-in were at least three other ambassadors-in-waiting, including John Hoover, 54, who was nominated more than a year ago for the top job in Sierra Leone.

The West African country where Hoover would be leading the U.S. mission is at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak, and the United States is pouring in resources, Hoover said. But that work “is handicapped by not having a chief of mission to coordinate and lead that very urgent effort.” Hoover, who has been a diplomat for 26 years, has experience managing the response to unprecedented epidemics: He led the interagency efforts from the U.S. consulate in Shanghai in 2003 when SARS swept through China.

“It’s a reminder of the importance of small countries that people don’t often think about,” he said.

According to the State Department, of the 46 ambassadors in limbo, 33 are, like Hoover and Hoza, career diplomats, rather than political appointees.

Hoza left for Yaounde days after being sworn in and arrived Thursday in Cameroon’s capital. Back here in Washington, “I’m living day to day,” said Hoover, who has no idea when he will be moving to Freetown.

— With Colby Itkowitz

Twitter: @KamenInTheLoop, @ColbyItkowitz

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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