Derek Mitchell, U.S. ambassador to Burma, describes the country's rapid reforms and opening to the outside world after decades of isolation. The U.S. is encouraged by the pace of change but remains "sober" enough to know that continuity is not inevitable, Mr. Mitchell said at Emory University in Atlanta.

Rapid political reforms in the formerly reclusive nation of Myanmar are unlocking opportunities for U.S. companies across Southeast Asia, a region of more than 600 million consumers, U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell said in Atlanta

If the regime continues its long journey from repressive dictatorship toward open government, the U.S. won’t just benefit from a new market; it will also have more leeway in its dealings with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, a 10-country bloc that is growing more vital to American economic and military interests, Mr. Mitchell said. 

“We couldn’t do things with ASEAN because we had restrictions on our engagement with Burma,” he said, using the country’s old name to adhere to State Department policy. “So the more we can engage with Burma, the more Burma becomes more normal, the more we can have a normal relationship with ASEAN, we can work on ASEAN unity and integration.” 

Mr. Mitchell added that “ticking time bombs” involving Burma, like ethnic tensions and human trafficking, can now be dealt with directly through an established relationship. Myanmar, situated between India and China, the world’s two most populous countries, could also become a key economic connector between East and South Asia

During a tour of Asia last month to solidify his administration’s strategic “pivot” to the region, President Obama made a six-hour stop in the city of Yangon, the Burmese economic center, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country. 

In a speech at Yangon University, he acknowledged the recent successes and pledged American support, but he also urged vigilance on the slow path toward freedom. 

Speaking alongside U.S. ambassadors to ASEAN, Singapore and Malaysia at Emory Law School, Mr. Mitchell said that the United States is “sober” about the reform process, which he said will require patience and diligence from American policy makers. 

“We have seen a remarkable progress in a short period of time, but it’s easy to release political prisoners,” Mr. Mitchell said at the event, which was organized by Emory’s Halle Institute for Global Learning. “It’s much harder to develop an economic system and to open up the political system to allow, for instance, the opposition to take leadership, for [democracy activist] Aung San Suu Kyi to take leadership or at least stand for election.”

He noted that the constitution the country adopted in 2008 allows the military to hold a quarter of parliamentary seats and to step in if it deems things are going awry. 

Still, the breakneck pace of Burma’s political reforms make up “one of the best news stories going on anywhere around the world,” Mr. Mitchell said, recommending that U.S. firms explore this newly opened market of 60 million people. 

Despite its rich natural resources, Myanmar lacks critical infrastructure and lags its neighbors in the use of technology and consumer products. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. was among the first to flood into the poor country when President Obama lifted sanctions in October. 

Mr. Mitchell was joined on stage by David Adelman, U.S. ambassador to Singapore and an Emory Law alum; Paul Jones, U.S. ambassador to Malaysia and David Carden, U.S. ambassador to ASEAN based in Jakarta, Indonesia

They all stressed that the pivot to Asia, the Obama administration’s rebalancing of strategic resources away from the Middle East and toward the Pacific, encompassed more than just military realignment. In fact, it had begun happening naturally in the last few years based on American interests in the region. 

Mr. Jones highlighted State Department program similar to the Peace Corps aimed at teaching English in Malaysia’s rural areas. Mr. Adelman stressed the $116 billion of cumulative U.S. investment in the island city-state of Singapore, which he said is double the amount in China and five times that in India. 

Mr. Carden was bullish on increasing integration of ASEAN, which has been around since 1967 but hasn’t made significant strides toward economic integration until the last decade. The recent ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, stoked fears that integration would take a step backward as the parties failed to reach a joint communique as arguments over territorial claims in the South China Sea came to the fore. 

Mr. Carden said, however, the fact that Asia watchers even paid attention to squabbles showed that integration is moving forward. 

He called it “unfortunate” how much the Obama “pivot” had been framed in military terms, considering the breadth of issues he works on every day, including security, poverty reduction, health, human trafficking, investment and more. 

“The reality is that United States engagement in Asia is broad, it is deep, it is systemic, it has been enduring and it has not gone anywhere for quite some time,” Mr. Carden said.

The ambassadors had come back home on a tour organized by the US-ASEAN Business Council, which picked Atlanta in part because of Coca-Cola’s membership, but also because of its position as a corporate hub for the Southeast

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As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...