The United States — which still officially refers to the country as Burma instead of Myanmar, the name the former ruling junta gave it — is helping the government prepare to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year, a sign of the strategic importance the United States places on this country of 60 million, wedged between India and China.
The U.S. armed forces helped train many Burmese military officials before relations between the two countries soured in the late 1980s, and despite concerns from some human rights groups, members of the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, participated as observers in a U.S.-led military exercise in Thailand in February. A team from the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is currently outside Mandalay searching for information about U.S. service members who went missing in Burma during World War II — with assistance from Burma’s military.
The United States is also ramping up foreign aid and considering reinstating tariff benefits that have been suspended since 1989.
Indeed, Singaporean, Chinese, Japanese and Thai firms have long operated in Burma, and European companies face a far easier road following the European Union’s recent decision to end sanctions, other than an arms embargo.
Some reservations, still
“For the first time . . . you’re starting to see American brands,” said Joshua Brown, the chief representative in Burma for Tractus Asia, a management consulting company that helped arrange a visit by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce delegation in February.
Still, for every Ford or Coca-Cola, people in the local business community say there are several more American companies still evaluating whether they have the stomach to jump in, particularly ahead of an important presidential election looming in 2015 — when Suu Kyi might be allowed to run as a candidate.
Burma poses unique risks, Brown said, and companies want to know if things could go backward, as they have before. “American companies are very wary of the risks that are posed by the sanctions regime. It’s very difficult to understand who’s who,” he said. They want to “understand if the undoing of the sanctions regime has permanence.”
Ford navigated this complicated landscape, eager to seize a share of a currently small market dominated by second-hand Japanese vehicles.
“Everything we do, in a lot of respects, is the first time it’s been done in the country,” said David Westerman, Ford’s regional manager for export and growth operations in the Asia Pacific. “It’s a country of 60 million. We’re looking at the same numbers everyone is looking at.”
U.S. companies will be important advertisers in Burma’s growing media scene, noted Thiha Saw, editor of the Open News Weekly Journal. An end to a five-decade ban on publishing dailies has left downtown newsstands stacked high with newspapers — the kind of reform that is winning applause in Washington.
Still, the U.S. relationship with the newly opened Burma is in its infancy. “It hasn’t reached a point of no return yet,” Thiha Saw said. “It still needs a few more years.”