The surprise US decision to lift economic sanctions on Myanmar in October was hailed as a landmark step in the march from decades of near-isolation — and as a boon for American companies seeking to tap a big market where many had feared to tread. But critics say the move also had a darker side: it freed up the sprawling commercial interests of a military that ruled for almost 50 years.
These companies include Myanmar Economic Corporation, a secretive conglomerate owned by the defence ministry that operates in strategic sectors ranging from ports to telecommunications. Another is Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, which enriches military officers and veterans with proceeds from lucrative businesses including cigarettes and petroleum imports.
The enterprises project themselves as potential partners for foreign multinationals tempted by the economic prospects under Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led administration. But while they have made a public effort at reinvention, for many analysts they have not shaken off associations with an era of authoritarianism during which thousands were killed.
Foreign companies in sectors from beer to steel have decided that taking on partners linked to a military accused for years of corruption, land-grabbing and human rights abuses is better than not doing business at all. That commercial dilemma reflects the bigger question of how much has changed in the nation’s power structure since the current government took office almost a year ago.