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Myanmar opening no gold rush for US firms

November 23, 2012

YANGON, Myanmar - Signs of a boom abound in Myanmar. Flights to Yangon are full, hotel rooms booked solid. Foreign bars are packed with well-fed Westerners in khakis and jeans, twenty-first century prospectors drawn to this golden frontier.

Myanmar got a further boost this week from President Barack Obama, who became the first serving U.S. president to visit the long-isolated state, an endorsement that has not gone unnoticed by global investors. But despite America's leadership in welcoming Myanmar back into the international community, U.S. companies have so far not signed any big deals - a situation few expect to change soon.

Washington is unwinding its web of sanctions against Myanmar, but the suspension of most legal barriers to business in this nation of 60 million is unlikely to be a gold rush for American firms. Rolling back sanctions will take time, and concerns about corruption and political blowback at home complicate efforts by U.S. companies to move in big and fast. There is confusion about what is permitted, as well as onerous new reporting requirements, and lingering doubt about whether the changes, both in Myanmar and in U.S. policy, will stick.

Article Photos

In this Monday file photo, U.S. President Barack Obama waves to the media as he embraces Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after they spoke to the media at her residence in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday. The United States is unwinding two decades of sanctions against Myanmar, as the country's reformist leadership oversees rapid-fire economic and political change.

What's at stake is one of the last big untapped consumer markets, as well as access to significant natural resources, including oil and gas, hydropower, timber, gems and some of the most fertile land on earth. Sandwiched between India and China -the world's fastest growing major economies - Myanmar today has some of the world's lowest levels of internet and cellphone use, as well as a dearth of good roads, ports, hotels, hospitals, schools and electricity.

Underlying the debate about sanctions, which many companies would like to see lifted more decisively, are questions about what role American business should play in Southeast Asia's poorest country. Speaking Monday at the University of Yangon, Obama said American companies must "lead by example." His administration has sought to reinforce good business practices, encouraging transparency by requiring companies that invest more than $500,000 in Myanmar to report details to the State Department, which will make some of the information public. And Washington is banning U.S. firms from doing business with the country's biggest, and most corrupt, businessmen.

Whether those strictures - which put American firms at a competitive disadvantage - will achieve their desired aim is a matter of debate, but the ideas they enshrine may prove valuable in the long run.



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