Before the gold rush: Burma braces for march of the multinationals

The Guardian reports: In the single street of Rangoon’s crowded Bothun San neighbourhood, attention is focused on the daily afternoon lottery. Hugely popular among the near-destitute labourers and their families, and played between neighbours on the flattened earth, it offers the prospect of a square meal rather than immediate life-changing wealth.

Stakes are small but wins are big, enough to feed a family for a day or so. “If I win then we get fish or even chicken,” said Myat Soe, a 50-year-old labourer who lives with seven relatives in a makeshift bamboo house without power or sanitation. “If I win 100 times maybe I’ll get rich.”

Myat Soe is not the only one thinking about making large amounts of money in Burma. Hundreds of the world’s biggest companies are making plans to move into the country if political progress towards democracy continues. They hope to make millions as the repressive regime seeks to reintegrate in the international community.

The EU, the US and Canada are considering how and when they will ease sanctions imposed over the past 20 years on the brutal military authorities that ruled – and some say still rule – the country. Any change will send a signal to potential investors that Burma is no longer considered a pariah state.

A week ago, travel restrictions on senior Burmese officials were lifted by the EU. A full review of the sanctions is scheduled for April.

One businessman staying at a five-star hotel in Rangoon spoke this month of a “gold rush” in Asia’s second-poorest country. “It is when, not if, for most of us. I think there’s a bit of a Klondike feel,” said the businessman, who did not want to be named, said.

Prompting the change has been a series of reforms implemented by the nominally civilian government that took power last year. President Thein Sein has met key opposition leaders including the democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, eased censorship, legalised trade unions and released hundreds of political prisoners.

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