Myanmar: In From the Cold

Nov 19, 2012

President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Yangon in Yangon, Myanmar. Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg.

President Obama made history by becoming the first sitting U.S. President to visit Myanmar. His visit was the capstone to an ongoing détente between the two countries over the past year and a half. 

During this time, Myanmar has made substantial progress toward democratizing and opening up the country, its political system, and its economy.  It has released many (though not all) political prisoners; it allowed generally free and fair by-elections in April which saw the opposition capture 43 of the 44 seats it contested; it has enacted ILO-consistent labor laws; and it has eased restrictions on the media.  Myanmar is liberalizing its foreign investment regime, is tackling complex issues like land reform, while at the same time trying to put in place a basic banking and financial services infrastructure. 

The Administration has responded adroitly to the rapid change.  Over the past year, the Secretary of State visited Myanmar, becoming the first to do so since John Foster Dulles; the U.S. and Myanmar upgraded diplomatic relations to the full Ambassadorial level; the U.S. eased investment and financial services sanctions; in September, the US passed legislation permitting multilateral development bank loans to Myanmar; and last Friday, the US announced it was waiving its decade-old ban on imports from Myanmar.   The President’s visit was a powerful assertion of U.S. support for Myanmar’s transformation and for the reformers who are driving that transformation. 

There is substantial interest in Myanmar on the part of U.S. business; indeed, companies like Coca-Cola, GE, and Visa have already gone into the market.  At the same time, Myanmar is a long-term proposition.  With a per capita income of $800 per year and severe shortcomings in virtually all aspects of its hard and soft infrastructure, its needs are vast.  Unfortunately, its capacities are not. 

It is here that U.S. business can play an important role.  By bringing in the capital, technology, and respect for rule of law, U.S. companies can build a foundation for sustained economic growth.  Without this foundation, development and improved standards of living for the people of Myanmar (or any other country) is simply not possible.

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