SIEM REAP, Cambodia Coca-Cola Co (KO.N) sees big potential in Myanmar and is in talks with prospective local partners, but it could be a long time before it begins operations, its regional head said on Friday.
Myanmar, emerging from decades of military rule and one of only three countries in which the company has no operations, was an attractive market for Coca-Cola, but it would not rush into hasty agreements, said Manuel Arroyo, president of Coca-Cola's ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Business Unit.
"The potential of the market, there's no doubt, but obviously we need to walk a very clear, open and transparent line before operating there," he told Reuters in an interview during a meeting of U.S. businesses in Cambodia.
"We're assessing different options with potential partners, or whether we go on our own.
"Of course all of this will require quite a lot of work, and many, many months ... to do the proper due diligence," he added. "We're still in the very embryonic stage."
He said the firm would work closely with the U.S. State Department to make sure prospective partners were appropriate, as required by new U.S. rules on investing in Myanmar, a country of 60 million people, announced by President Barack Obama this week.
Myanmar's quasi-civilian government took office in March 2011 and has started overhauling its economy, easing media censorship, legalizing trade unions and protests and freeing political prisoners.
Among the local soft drinks companies that could be Coca-Cola's partners were Pinya Manufacturing Co, Myanmar Golden Star (MGS) and Loi Hein Company.
"But we've seen more than three," said Arroyo. "We're still working internally to decide who would be our best partner, or whether to go alone."
Despite ceasing operations in 1960, Coca-Cola drinks have been smuggled into Myanmar for years over the border from Thailand.
(Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Alan Raybould and David Cowell)