Official: 'Gold Rush' Is On in Myanmar

Myanmar Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin Encourages American Investment in Country

Video: Watch the complete program (1 hr., 18 min.)

NEW YORK, September 25, 2013 — Myanmar's top diplomat urged American companies to "join the gold rush" in his country, opening an Asia Society forum on Myanmar's economic future. "The door for business opportunity has been closed for four decades," said Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin. "That door is now wide open. It's a gold rush."

The U.S. has treaded more cautiously than many in Myanmar — it ranks 13th of the 32 nations now investing there — but U.S. officials insist that corporate enthusiasm is strong. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told the gathering that dozens of U.S. companies had asked to join his recent trip to Myanmar, though he acknowledged the need to "knock down barriers" to investment — corruption and bureaucracy in particular. The question, as Shah put it, is, "Can the ministries change fast enough?"

The forum, "Responsible Investment in Myanmar’s Future," hosted by the Asia Society and sponsored by the McKinsey Global Institute, brought leaders of the governments of Myanmar and the U.S. together with global leaders from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

Tom Freston, principal of Firefly3, board chairman of the ONE Campaign and Asia Society trustee, cited a "historic opportunity" in Myanmar, a country he has been visiting for decades. Freston noted a parallel to the recent renaissance of several African nations — "nations that have gone down the road that Myanmar's going down now" — and which have lured significant investment and seen spikes in economic growth.

Today’s event was a long time in the making, for the Myanmar delegation, and for the Asia Society itself.

For decades Myanmar — Burma, as it was known until recently — lived in a dark age of repression and economic isolation. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy were pariahs; Ms. Suu Kyi spent the better part of two decades under house arrest in her villa in Rangoon (now Yangon). The Asia Society played a role in bringing the opposition and the ruling military junta together, and the fruits of that effort were evident a year ago, when Ms. Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein came to the U.S. and made their first public appearances at Asia Society venues.

One year later, Myanmar's leaders were back at the Asia Society, making their pitch.

"We have so much to offer," said Zaw Oo, economic advisor to Thein Sein, before launching into a list of Myanmar's strengths — its rich natural resources, long coastlines, and bountiful labor pool, among others. "What we need is to show quick and tangible benefits to our people."

For every opportunity, Myanmar has a challenge to match. Poor infrastructure, pervasive corruption, and ethnic conflict, to name a few. Panelists also spoke of the need to better coordinate international aid and investments. Asia Society President Josette Sheeran, who moderated the session, said the management of significant public and private aid risked becoming "like pushing a bowling ball through a straw."

Still, optimism carried the day, not least because, as Sheeran noted, Myanmar is "a country that captures people's hearts." Added Freston: "It's one of the last great new markets on earth." 

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Asia Society 2013 UNGA events