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Coca-Cola fizzes up the pace of change in Myanmar

A man worked in the Coca-Cola bottling plant near Yangon, Myanmar.

LYNN BO BO/EPA

A man worked in the Coca-Cola bottling plant near Yangon, Myanmar.

For decades, there were only three countries in the world where you couldn’t buy an authentic Coke: North Korea, Cuba, and Myanmar.

Make that two. After 60 years, Coca-Cola is back in Myanmar, a mark of progress for the formerly reclusive state. Also known as Burma, Asia’s poorest nation is making its first advances toward political and economic reform in nearly a generation, and foreign dollars may prove key to its success.

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Coke joins a growing list of multinational firms — including rival PepsiCo — taking tentative bets on what is considered by many Westerners to be Asia’s last major economic frontier. American sanctions on Myanmar were lifted earlier this year, and the foreign attention could, for one thing, speed up improvements to infrastructure. Less than 13 percent of Burmese have regular access to electricity, according to a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute.

Better access to sugary drinks, on the other hand, might not seem like a step forward. But for Myanmar, Coke’s investment could go a long way. The company plans to spend $200 million over the next five years and, in early June, opened a new bottling plant outside the commercial capital of Yangon. That includes the creation of thousands of jobs, a much-needed infusion for a country where 40 percent of the population is unemployed. Now that’s refreshing.

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