Coca Cola Goes Back to Burma for First Time in 60 Years

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A man rides a bicycle past a roadside restaurant with a large Coca-Cola banner in downtown Rangoon on September 11, 2012

After more than half a century, Burmese are getting a Coke and a smile.

The Coca Cola Company said on Monday it had resumed its presence in Burma, the Southeast Asian nation also known as Myanmar, which is in the midst of its first tentative economic and political reforms in nearly a generation. The company’s Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent personally handed one of the first cases of the drink to a shop-owner in the country’s commercial capital 0f Rangoon. The last time the company sold its trademark soda in the city was in 1960, the last full year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, the year the halogen lamp was patented and Sean Penn was born.

(MORE: Will Burma Become Asia’s Next Economic Tiger?)

Coca Cola beat its rival Pepsi back into Burma following the suspension of Western sanctions against its military rulers earlier this year, although neither beverage giant was exactly running back into the arms of the junta. Coca Cola cautiously announced its return in July, while Pepsi, which had done business in Burma as recently as 1997, followed suit in August. Both soda brands were already available on the streets of Rangoon, but at a cost: the drinks had to be smuggled in from neighboring countries, pushing prices up to 1,000 kyat per bottle — slightly more than $1 but the equivalent of a day’s wage for many Burmese. The legal sale will also bring new tax revenue to government coffers:  Burma’s government loses $27 million per year in revenue on smuggled beer alone, according to recent report by the Chinese magazine Caijing.

Now, only two countries are left in the anti-soft drink Axis of Evil: Cuba and North Korea are the only two countries in the world where Coke and Pepsi are not available. (Although at least at one Pyongyang pizzeria offers “Italian Coke,” according to a report in the Telegraph). But the rear-guard fight continues: Iran is considering a ban on imported sugary beverages to retaliate against European and American sanctions. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez urged his countrymen to swap Coke and Pepsi for locally produced grape juice. And in August, Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said the country will ban Coca Cola by the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, hailing it as “the end of capitalism.”  Of course, this is the same Mayan calendar that some believe heralds the end of the world, so Bolivian readers might want to drink ‘em if you got ‘em.

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