Myanmar abuzz over end of US sanctions, with residents clamouring for American brands like Apple

A poster displays beer, liquor, beverage, rice, sugar, milk and bottled water products made by the Myanmar Economic Cooperation outside a store in Yangon on Sept 15, 2016.
A poster displays beer, liquor, beverage, rice, sugar, milk and bottled water products made by the Myanmar Economic Cooperation outside a store in Yangon on Sept 15, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar cheered a United States promise to end sanctions on Thursday (Sept 15), with residents in its commercial capital clamouring for American brands while politicians and business moguls heralded a new era of transparency and trade.

US President Barack Obama vowed to scrap the trade limits during Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's first visit to the White House since her party took power in March, ending decades of military domination.

The move marks a milestone in the country's rapid transformation from an international pariah into Asia's fastest-growing economy under the leadership of the Nobel laureate.

But Mr Soe Naung Win, who owns a mobile phone shop in Myanmar's bustling economic capital of Yangon, had more immediate concerns.

"I want Apple to officially come to Myanmar," the 32-year-old told AFP. "I am crazy about the Apple brand and I want Apple to come here as an American brand."

While iPhones are widely available in Myanmar, one of the world's fastest-growing mobile phone markets, there are no official Apple stores in the country.

The US sanctions, imposed 20 years ago in a bid to put pressure on the former military regime, bar Americans from dealing with anyone on its blacklist of more than 100 people and companies linked to the former junta.

Some major US brands have already jumped into the frontier economy, but many have stayed away saying the sanctions make investment too expensive and dangerous.

Coca-Cola was left red-faced last year when watchdog Global Witness discovered its local partner was linked to a sanctioned military holding company, while a dealer for machinery giant Caterpillar had ties to jade companies controlled by a major drug lord.

Although some curbs on ties to the military will probably stay in place, Mr Obama's move is expected to bring greater clarity to US companies considering business in the emerging nation.

In Myanmar, key business players said the end of sanctions would usher in new investment and help drive the country's rise from decades of punishing poverty.

"This is very significant and signifies a new chapter in our country's economic development," said Mr Serge Pun, who runs several companies including First Myanmar Investment, one of Myanmar's biggest conglomerates.

"I have never been so optimistic about Myanmar's future as I am now."

Mr Khin Maung Lwin, permanent secretary from the Ministry of Commerce, said the changes would help shine a light on shadowy industries like the jade trade, worth billions of dollars and run by illicit gangs and corrupt military officials that has fuelled decades of violence in Myanmar's borderlands.

The sanctions currently ban US imports of jadeite.

"Removing sanctions on the jade industry is important, and more transparency is needed on production and trading," he told AFP.

"Domestically, it will also mean more taxes for the government," he added.

Washington started paring back sanctions in 2012 under the previous quasi-civilian regime, led by former president Thein Sein, and rolled them back further in May after Ms Suu Kyi's party took office.

While the latest lift was celebrated in the business world, rights groups cautioned Mr Obama was forgoing crucial leverage over the military, which still holds a quarter of Parliament seats and controls several powerful ministries.

"Lifting all sanctions now will embolden the Myanmar military and its partners," said Mr Matthew Smith, chief executive at Fortify Rights.

"This decision was hasty and fails to recognise political realities on the ground."