Coke Plans Investment in Myanmar

Alan Rappeport in New York

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s Nobel Prize-winning opposition leader, will soon be able to sip a Coke in her own country.

Coca-Cola bottles

Coca-Cola is planning to begin doing business in Myanmar, one of just three countries – along with North Korea and Cuba – where the U.S. beverage group does not operate. The world’s largest beverage company by revenues said on Thursday that once the U.S. government gives it a general license to do business there, it will begin making “significant” investments across the country during the next three to five years.

Coke also said that its charitable arm would make a $3 million investment to promote employment among women across Myanmar.

The move comes as Myanmar’s new government has been moving quickly to liberalize its economy after decades of oppressive military rule and looking to lure western companies to make investments.

“Coca-Cola has always stood for optimism at times of change and progress around the world,” Muhtar Kent, Coke’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Initially, some Coke products will be imported from neighboring countries, but the company said it would eventually sell, distribute, market and manufacture its products there locally.

Coke stopped doing business in Myanmar more than 60 years ago. During a speech in March, Mr. Kent said that he hoped the company would be able to eventually sell Coke there, as well as in North Korea and Cuba.

“Coca-Cola’s long history is richly intertwined with the history of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kent said at the time, pointing out that the company made its first foray into Asia in 1912 when it entered the Philippines.

Coke has been notorious for quickly entering markets after the U.S. lifts sanctions.

The company had originally operated in China in 1927, but left in 1949 after Mao Zedong’s communist regime expelled most foreign businesses. In 1979, after president Jimmy Carter re-established full relations with China, Coke immediately sent 20,000 cases of the soft drink from Hong Kong to the mainland.

In 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunited, Coke employees in West Germany began handing out free soda to east Germans that day.

The U.S. lifted its ban on investing in Myanmar last month and General Electric and Caterpillar have signaled that they will make investments. However, lingering sectarian violence and mixed signals from the Obama administration over possible penalties for breaking disclosure and licensing rules have made some companies wary of moving too fast.