YANGON, Myanmar — Great fanfare accompanied Coca Cola’s recent announcement that, after six long decades, the beverage behemoth would return to Myanmar, Southeast Asia’s pariah on the mend.
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In announcing the decision to enter the country, formerly titled Burma, Coke’s CEO didn’t squander the opportunity for drama. Coca Cola, he said in a press release, would refresh Myanmar just as it did Germany after the Berlin Wall fell and Vietnam after it resumed ties with America.
You might assume that, because the US has long forbid American businesses from doing business with Myanmar, its citizens have lived in a world devoid of Coca Cola. Not quite.
Shops in Myanmar have sold Coke and other American staples for years. Skirting the law is inefficient but quite simple: licensed manufacturers in neighboring countries produce more than they need and sell them to third-party distributors in Myanmar. The sticker price is then jacked up to account for the hassle.
Though US sanctions were just suspended, the old workaround is very much in effect. While on assignment in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, I ventured into a supermarket with a goal: spot the most iconic American products on the shelves.
First up, Coca Cola. The cans were produced in Thailand and priced at 55 cents per can. Its lemon-lime counterpart, Sprite, was produced in Singapore.
Next up, the astronaut’s choice: Tang! A 400 gram bag sells for $1.60. One aisle over, the supermarket displayed Pantene Pro-V shampoo (a Procter and Gamble product) and Heinz reduced-fat mayonnaise. Both were manufactured in Thailand.
But the choice find was Budweiser, beer of patriots. This was produced not in Thailand or Singapore but the American heartland: St. Louis, Missouri. From there, it was imported by a licensed Cambodian distributor that passed the bottles on to Myanmar.
But ducking embargoes hasn’t come cheap. The price of one 12-ounce Bud? $2.30.
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