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Why Investors Should Tread Warily in Myanmar

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
November 18, 2012
BusinessWeek

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When President Barack Obama arrives in Myanmar (Burma) Monday for the first-ever visit to the country by a sitting American president, he'll be joining a large group of investors who have been eagerly scouting the country.

As most leading democracies have dropped sanctions on Myanmar over the past year, the country's largest city, Yangon, has been inundated with foreign investment.General Electric (GE) and other consumer-goods companies are scouting out opportunities in Myanmar, while the leading credit-card companies are partnering with Myanmar banks to get into the market. Banks such as Standard Chartered are figuring out how to return. Even the World Bank, which has not had a presence in the country in decades, authorized a landmark aid package this month worth $245 million.

On the surface, the excitement seem to make sense. A country with a population of 50 million, sandwiched between some of the fastest-growing economies on earth, Myanmar was isolated for decades by its own leaders and Western sanctions. Led by reformist president Thein Sein, a former general, the country in the past two years has streamlined its investment laws, reformed its currency, and cracked down on graft. And Myanmar contains enormous natural resources. As one energy company executive told me, "Every oil company in the world is looking there now." Earlier this year, officials from the Burmese Ministry of Energy announced that the country possessed "proven" oil reserves of almost 140 million barrels and 11.4 trillion cubic feet of gas, potentially putting it on par with some of the largest petroleum producers in the world.

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