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The insurer was one of several companies that left the region (also known as Burma) 70 years ago.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Manulife Financial Corp. is re-establishing a presence in Myanmar, deepening its commitment to a recovering Asian country at a time when foreign investment is on the rise.

The insurer was one of several companies that left the region (also known as Burma) 70 years ago, amid the conflict of the Second World War, when the Japanese occupied the territory. But Myanmar's growing economy and the political reforms of the past few years are now attracting household brands back to the region.

Manulife says it wants to be a part of developing the life insurance industry in the Southeast Asian country, and is opening a representative office in the city of Yangon (also known as Rangoon).

"Myanmar was actually one of Manulife's earliest markets in Asia," said Robert Cook, president of Manulife Asia. "We're confident that, in light of its large, dynamic population and the positive changes in its economy, it can be a major part of our future, too."

The move comes nearly two years after the federal government began strengthening ties with Myanmar. Canada and many other countries around the world imposed trade and economic sanctions against the country because of human rights violations and the political prisoners taken when a military dictatorship took over the country in the 1960s. The military junta was dissolved in 2011.

International Trade Minister Ed Fast unveiled plans for a full-time trade commission and Canadian embassy Yangon in 2012, as Canada eased its economic sanctions against the country. Last year Mark McDowell was appointed ambassador to the country.

Mr. Fast also visited Myanmar with 20 business leaders from Canada in 2012. He cautioned potential investors to be alert to changing government policy and regulation, and to seek business partners with the "highest level of integrity."

For Manulife, this new office represents the company's increased focus on Asia's growing middle class market, both in its insurance and wealth management businesses. Last year the company collected nearly 30 per cent of its core earnings from 11 countries in Asia.

Myanmar's economy is fuelled by a young work force and natural resources such as oil and gas, wood and metals. It is also helped by geography – it is nestled between China and Thailand, and close to India. In the past few years, more Western companies have found their way to the region as Myanmar's laws have opened the county up to foreign investment. Companies such as Unilever PLC and Coca-Cola Co. have re-opened production facilities in Myanmar in the past year.

The World Facebook said "modernizing and opening the financial sector" would be a sign of economic progress.

Still, the positioning the office as "representative" indicates the insurer is moving slowly. While the country could experience a rise in wealth, more than one quarter of the population live in poverty.

Follow Jacqueline Nelson on Twitter: @j2nelsonOpens in a new window

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