US says Kerry broke no sanctions on Myanmar hotel

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon on August 10, 2014
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon on August 10, 2014 (AFP Photo/Ye Aung Thu)

Washington (AFP) - The United States said Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry technically abided his own government's laws after he stayed in Myanmar at a hotel owned by a sanctioned tycoon.

Myanmar, the host of talks this week among Southeast Asian foreign ministers in its showcase capital Naypyidaw, put up Kerry and his entourage at the Lake Garden hotel, which is owned by tycoon Zaw Zaw's Max Myanmar Group.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that Kerry was assigned the hotel by Myanmar's foreign ministry and that, while Zaw Zaw himself was blacklisted, US law does not prohibit Americans from staying at accommodation owned by sanctioned companies.

"You can stay at this hotel no matter who you are, you just can't do business with it. So if you wanted to sell them towels, you could not do that. But you could stay there," Harf explained.

Harf insisted that the choice of hotel did not conflict with the US push for Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to do more on human rights.

"When the secretary of state and President (Barack) Obama sit in Burma with Burmese leaders directly to their face and say, you need to do more to reform, I think that makes the case much more clearly than where the secretary sleeps," she said.

US relations with Myanmar have warmed dramatically since the former military dictatorship embarked on democratic reforms several years ago.

The United States has lifted most sanctions but keeps in place restrictions aimed at elements of the powerful army. Zaw Zaw is considered well-connected with the military, which abruptly moved the national capital out of Myanmar's largest city Yangon in 2005 and built the new city.