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After the US began easing key sanctions against Burma this July, General Electric became the first major American corporation to invest in the country and inked deals to begin supplying hospitals in Rangoon with medical equipment. David Stout spoke with Stuart L. Dean, CEO of GE in ASEAN, about the company’s move to invest in Burma.
As one of the first major western corporations to invest in Burma since the initiation of reforms, can you tell us a little bit about GE’s experience operating in what many describe as Asia’s final frontier?
Myanmar is among two last frontier countries we need to complete our total presence in ASEAN. It will be our ninth country and we only have Laos left to complete our regional footprint. We have decided to open a representative office in Myanmar in order for us to better understand the country and identify opportunities where GE can help the country build necessary infrastructure that its people want and what potential investors will require. We have sold a high-technology CT machine and an equally high-technology cardiovascular and interventional imaging machine. We have appointed a distributor who operates with high integrity. We hope to have similar success with power generation equipment this year. So far, we have found both private and public sector procurement practices fair and transparent.
While several prominent voices, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have urged western businesses to avoid reckless optimism and practice “healthy scepticism”, what steps has GE taken to ensure that the company invests responsibly in Burma?
While no one in GE would argue with that kind of sound advice, we also see risk in not entering this market. GE is an infrastructure company and we see a great opportunity to help this country build the kind of world-class infrastructure that its people and potential investors want. GE will adhere to its same high standard of global conduct in Myanmar. We will only hire employees and work with partners who share our values. Further, we are keen to share best practices in Myanmar. Our sense is that Myanmar is searching for global partners who can help them develop world-class governance processes, which is a great sign.
At the moment there seems to be no lack of interest in investing in Burma, however, many companies cite that the country’s lack of physical and legal infrastructure may prevent them from actually doing business in Burma. How has GE dealt with the country’s shortcomings?
As an infrastructure company, we are keen to help the country solve its physical infrastructure challenges. In speaking with government leaders, we understand that they are committed to improving their legal infrastructure. Our constant focus has always been the protection of the interest of our shareholders as we do business there.
Finally, what would you say to sceptics who claim that Western sanctions were dropped too quickly and it’s still not the right time to be engaging Burma?
The country is in the middle of an historic transformation. As long as they continue on this path, we should engage with them and encourage more reforms.