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Behind Myanmar's first investment bank

YANGON, Myanmar -- Alisher Ali knew on the morning of his second day in Myanmar that the long-closed country was a risk worth taking. Less than two months later he moved his wife and four children to crumbling, tree-lined Yangon and opened Myanmar's first-ever investment bank with US$1 million of his own money.

This places him in sparse company. While many chatter about the economic potential of one of the world's last frontier markets, very few foreigners have actually set up shop. The first thing Ali had to do was explain to people in Myanmar, including some of his new employees, what an investment bank is.

Decades of isolation have left Myanmar with a weak education system, feeble banks, questionable courts, uneven electricity supply, entrenched corruption and an underdeveloped mobile phone network. In the last two years, sweeping political change has resulted in the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the election of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to Parliament, and the lifting of most U.S. and European sanctions.

Today, the Southeast Asian country's bureaucracy is scrambling to keep pace with multiple transitions, from socialism to capitalism, dictatorship to democracy, and conflict to peace. The legal environment for investors remains murky, and beneath the flurry of reforms, many feel a tug of doubt: Will this change endure? Have the country's military rulers, under the leadership of reformist president Thein Sein, really surrendered the power they grasped with such violent fervor for nearly 50 years?

These things don't bother Ali.

Looking at the early sun on Yangon's Inya Lake from a hotel balcony on his second day in Myanmar, Ali saw a country with enormous untapped potential, a bit like Mongolia — where he made his name and his money — only with 20 times more people and in a better location.

“It's an enormous bet,” he said. “Over the last 20 years, you don't have any precedent where an economy of 65 million people is joining the global economy.”

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In this Sept.15 photo, Alisher Ali talks during an interview with The Associated Press in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP)

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