McDonald’s, the world’s biggest restaurant chain, has been flipping burgers in Asia for 40 years, but has yet to plant its golden arches in either Myanmar or North Korea — two countries that are desperately in need of a few Happy Meals.
That could be set to change after Hilary Clinton’s landmark visit to the country formerly known as Burma last week. She is the highest-ranking US official to visit the country since John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, who came in 1955 to convince the then-democratic Burmese not to become communists. After almost 50 years of socialist-styled military rule, Clinton came to persuade President Thein Sein to lead his country back to full democracy.
Might her trip have paved the way for a McDonald’s in Yangon? Or is that about as likely as getting a Big Mac in Pyongyang? We decided to ask readers in our web poll last week, and their response was fairly emphatic: Myanmar is a lot closer to “lovin’ it” than North Korea. Which is not really surprising.
Despite many false starts in the past, Myanmar’s military rulers have embarked on a series of reforms this year and Clinton’s trip has encouraged expectations that the US could soon lift its sanctions against the country. During the visit, Thein Sein ended the ban on peaceful protests and agreed a ceasefire with Shan rebels.
“The United States wants to be a partner with Burma,” Clinton said during a visit to Aung San Suu Kyi’s home. “We want to work with you as you further democratisation, as you release all political prisoners, as you begin the difficult but necessary process of ending the ethnic conflicts that have gone on far too long, as you hold elections that are free, fair and credible.”
Some observers see the US interest in Myanmar as part of a new cold war with China, with the two countries fighting for influence in the region. If so, it is a war in which each new branch of McDonald’s is a small victory.
Indeed, the company’s vast presence in the region has been hard-fought. Japanese entrepreneur Den Fujita became the first to introduce McDonald’s to Asia in 1971 when he opened an outlet in Mitsukoshi, a famous department store in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza shopping district. Back then, the Japanese diet comprised very little beef, so Fujita had to use a bit of salesman’s bluster to turn people around.
“The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years,” he is reported to have said back in the 1970s. “If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin become white and our hair blonde.”
Despite that, the Japanese eventually took to Big Macs and Teriyaki McBurgers. Fujita’s unusual promotional style even won admirers, including Softbank founder Masayoshi Son, who idolised the burger entrepreneur and later gave him a seat on his company’s board.
Fujita’s success showed that people in Asia loved a burger as much as anyone else, encouraging McDonald’s to expand into Hong Kong in 1975 and Singapore in 1979. The Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand soon followed.
And perhaps Myanmar will indeed be next. Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, once observed that no country with a McDonald’s had ever gone to war with another — which is to say that America won’t bomb you as long as you let it sell some hamburgers. Hillary probably didn’t put it quite like that, but it might have sped things along if she had. Everyone likes a burger, after all.