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In two short years, a reform movement led by ex-generals has transformed a junta-run backwater into Asia’s new investment attraction. But there's a catch. Yangon is no ready-made Shanghai. Long neglected, the country's infrastructure leaves much to be desired. And many of the resources that make Myanmar so compelling in the first place lie in the jungle under the careful watch of guerrilla fighters. Still, the companies have come, and the money is flowing. Cue the gold rush. GlobalPost's Patrick Winn investigates.

Myanmar lights
Rush hour traffic moves near by the Sule Pagoda at dusk in Yangon, Myanmar. (Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

No longer a pariah, Myanmar courts Western investment partners

As sanctions subside, a broken nation revels in the limelight and seeks foreign businesses to help it cash in.

YANGON, Myanmar — In a dimly lit ballroom, Myanmar’s investment czar gushed about his nation’s dazzling future to a congregation of foreign investors. Each had paid $1,500 to hear the government’s big pitch: Long an economic basket case, Myanmar is now an investment gold mine.

“Myanmar is no longer a pariah,” declared Kyaw Zaw Maung, head of the nation’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration. His PowerPoint sermon hit the high points: The country is squeezed between behemoth markets India and China and blessed with oil and gems. Most important, it's ending its long chapter of despotism.

He reminded investors about Hillary Clinton's recent, game-changing declaration: After 15 years of heavy sanctions, Americans are now urged to do business in Myanmar. Kyaw Zaw Maung’s slideshow clicked over to a photo of the US secretary of state grinning and holding a wine glass aloft.

The bureaucrat had arrived at his punchline. “The Myanmar people,” he said, “want to taste her American wine!”

In two short years, a reform movement led by ex-generals has transformed a junta-run backwater into Asia’s new investment attraction.

Most American or European business deals in the country, formerly called Burma, would have triggered criminal charges just months ago. Now they're encouraged by Clinton and her counterparts in London, Berlin, Tokyo and beyond. 

A celebration has commenced in the country’s halls of power.

“Hillary was kind enough to tell them to start investing, to start looking at Myanmar. This releases the No. 1 headache,” said Moe Kyaw, a Yangon-based marketing magnate and presidential advisor. “So we are really open for business, OK? You don’t have to wait. Please, do business here.”

After 15 years inside a sanctions cage triggered by a response to brutal suppression of ethnic groups and pro-democracy dissidents, Myanmar is brimming with business to do. The government is aggressively showcasing the gems in its hills, the eager workforce in its cities and the natural gas buried offshore.

The president, an ex-general named Thein Sein, has proclaimed that foreign investment and know-how will help yank Myanmar out of the darkness. In a June national address, he declared a new national goal: tripling per capita GDP to $3,600 by 2016.

That goal is far-fetched, but these are heady days, especially in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, where starry optimism is replacing decades of despair.

Most political prisoners are free from their gulags. Leaders are relaxing top-down controls on commerce, as well as police state tactics that urge citizens to rat out unpatriotic neighbors.

To prolong this honeymoon phase, once-reclusive bureaucrats are working as pitchmen.

A series of “New Myanmar” summits, arranged by a Singaporean events agency, puts paying investors face to face with the officials who can authorize their projects. One such conference in late June attracted Indian tea farmers, Canadian mining firm Ivanhoe and US conglomerates General Electric and Dow Chemical. Along with hundreds of other firms, they were implored to stop fidgeting and start investing.

“The changes are happening right now,” said Ken Tun, CEO of Parami Energy, a Myanmar-based consortium that erects gas pipelines, explores oil fields and even manages a gold course.

“As a businessman, if you wait until 2015, then I really don’t know what opportunity will be left for you,” he said. “The genie will not go back into the bottle.”

Golden Euphoria

There is surely substance behind the excitement over Myanmar, a country equal parts broken and beautiful. Still unknown is whether foreign capital will bring sweeping benefits to its people, who have persevered through five decades of oppression, neglect and war.

Myanmar’s economy has been stunted by military rulers who have sprinkled less then 2 percent of GDP on schools while pouring billions into their armed forces. But broke schools and heavy censorship have somehow failed to blunt the former British colony’s intellectual streak. The United Nations puts the country’s literacy rate at 92 percent, a figure that bests India, South Africa and Brazil.

And they will work for a pittance: $80 per month for laborers, and $350 per month for chief accountants, according to an analysis by Alessio Polastri, a Yangon-based commercial consultant and co-founder of the P&A Asia law firm. “English is pretty popular here,” he said. “The salaries are relatively low. And Burmese people are notoriously hard workers.”

Bewhiskered and blessed with a wild black pompadour, Soe Thein