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Aung San Suu Kyi signals change in Burma, but investors should proceed with caution

Changes in Myanmar (Burma) are hopeful. Aung San Suu Kyi, once the country's most famous prisoner, is visiting Britain for the first time in 24 years. But foreign investors operating in Myanmar will still face challenges upholding international standards for human rights.

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Myanmar (Burma) pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi listens to the audience sing Happy Birthday to her following a discussion at the London School of Economics June 19. Op-ed contributor John G. Ruggie says that if foreign investors and their governments take steps to ensure standards for human rights, Myanmar could serve as 'an example of how businesses can operate responsibly even in challenging environments.'

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

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The recent decision by the Obama administration to ease economic sanctions on Myanmar (also known as Burma) presents an important opportunity to reintegrate that country into the international community. But caution is necessary to make sure that the inflow of new investments does not end up harming the country’s long-suffering citizens.

In spite of recent ethnic violence, changes in Myanmar (Burma) over the past year provide reasons for hope. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released from jail, and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, once the country’s most famous prisoner, now sits in parliament. Over the weekend in Oslo, Ms. Suu Kyi accepted the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded when under house arrest in 1991. Today she is in Britain for the first time in 24 years. And on Wednesday, she will accept the honorary doctorate from Oxford that she was awarded in 1993, also while she was under house arrest.

Under President Thein Sein, Myanmar has made economic reforms a priority and the government has announced plans to set up a press council and abolish media censorship.

These are positive steps, but governments and companies should proceed with caution. Myanmar is a country rich in natural resources, yet poverty persists. Concerns over corruption remain high as can be seen in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, which ranks the country third from the bottom in the world.

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