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After 60 Years, Coca-Cola Returns to Burma

Words by Leon Kaye

So Life Begins Here again in Burma? Currently known as Myanmar, Burma has one of the world’s most stunning landscapes, is a timeless cradle of southeast Asian civilization and bursts with natural resources. And for the first time in 60 years, when Coca-Cola’s official slogan was “What You Want Is a Coke,” the beverage giant returns to the region’s largest country and least developed economy. Signing up Oglivy & Mather as its marketing and communications agency in Burma, a new advertising campaign boasting “Open Happiness” (Coke’s on-again off-again slogan) has launched in and beyond the country’s capital of Yangon (formerly Rangoon).

Burmese citizens certainly have not known much happiness the past half century. In 1962 the country’s military, led by General Ne Win, took over the country after a coup d'etat. The result was a Soviet-style economic nationalization campaign that impoverished the nation, brutalized its people and strengthened power within the very few who combined savage cruelty with mind boggling incompetence. The country’s human rights tragedy is summed up by the saga of national hero Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the assassinated national hero who spent over 20 years in isolation and house arrest after her party’s victory in the 1990 elections that the ruling junta quickly overruled. Suu Kyi, finally released from house arrest in 2010, ran for a parliamentary seat this year and won. So is her victory a genuine signal that Burma is ready for foreign investment despite a miserable human rights record? Coca-Cola believes so.

Last year the marginally autonomous civilian government that now rules Burma rolled back many of the restrictive laws that choked off foreign investment, and now companies, including Coca-Cola, are beginning to move in. According to Coca-Cola, its investment and operations in Burma will follow what the company describes as its strict human rights policy. And as a nod towards the fact that many shops around the country are run by women, the company will include Burma within a program that identifies and trains women interested in becoming shopkeepers or distributors of Coke’s products. Meanwhile the the Coca-Cola Foundation funded a $3 million program to support initiatives throughout Burma that build women’s economic empowerment and job creation programs.

For now Coca-Cola is shipping its products into Burma, and through partnering with a local company, Pinya, says it will start local production soon. Total investment by Coca-Cola in the country could approach $100 million the next three years and create 2,000 jobs desperately needed in Burma.

Economic and social freedom are still very new concepts in Burma, and the country ranks among one of the most corrupt in the world, sharing fine company with North Korea, Somalia and Afghanistan. And Coca-Cola certainly has its critics, with the Killer Coke web site dutifully monitoring alleged human rights violations while other observers are quick to air allegations about the effects of the company’s various bottling operations around the world.

Watch for human rights activists to watch Coca-Cola’s entry into Burma with jaded caution while local Burmese seek the jobs that come with another foreign investor. Meanwhile the clock ticks slowly as North Korea and Cuba are the last two countries in which Coca-Cola does not conduct business.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter. He refuses to call this southeast Asian nation Myanmar.

Photo courtesy Coca Cola.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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