IT IS a country ruled by an unelected military junta, it is home to 'reformed' drug baron Khun Sa, it has been roundly condemned worldwide for alleged human rights violations, and - as is now apparent - it is a top destination for Hong Kong companies seeking early access to the next Asian economic miracle. This year is 'Visit Myanmar Year' and local companies are taking up the invitation. They are not just visiting - they are moving in. Investment is increasing, building is growing and a Burmese visit these days is likely to end in a firm handshake. The territory's companies are getting themselves a slice of the action. But should they? Aung San Suu Kyi, recently-released leader of the National League for Democracy, has taken one look at Visit Burma Year and said: 'Don't come.' She also has cast her eyes over the new liberalising drive of the military junta designed to attract much-needed US dollars and said: 'Don't invest.' But she is playing King Canute to an economic tide. Big Hong Kong names are on the list of companies that have either invested in Burma or in the process of doing so. On top of the name recognition list is Hongkong Bank, closely followed by companies such as Standard Chartered Bank, Jardine Fleming, Jardine Matheson, Sun Hung Kai Properties, the Kerry Group, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Peregrine Investments and Hutchison's Asia Satellite. Who these companies shake hands with is a matter of opinion. From a business stance, they are grabbing the hands of the people who can make their investments happen: senior politicians, joint venture partners and business leaders. From the point of view of others, notably aid agencies and organisations such as Amnesty International, the businessmen are shaking the hands with criminals, murderers and corrupt generals. More than that, they say the companies should feel tainted by the contact. Amnesty argues that companies have a political as well as a commercial responsibility and should demand improvements in human rights before signing cheques. The group held a demonstration this week urging local companies to 'look very carefully at their investments' and at 'where their money is going'. Robyn Kilpatrick, chairman of Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said: 'Amnesty fears that in the rush to do business in Burma the appalling suffering of thousands of people is being overlooked. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) continues to detain hundreds of political prisoners, most of whom have been convicted under laws which criminalised peaceful political activity and allowed unfair trials.' For their part, businesses argue that they are commercial organisations making purely commercial decisions. Moreover, they say that economic advancement is also a human right and believe that by investing in Burma they are helping advance the lot of the Burmese people by working to improve their standard of living. 'Multinationals see Burma as a place of great opportunity. They have to be aware of their public image, but they do not want to miss out on another Asian dragon. There is an enormous pressure on them to find the next opportunity, and that tends to outweigh corporate conscience,' said John Brinsden, director of Standard Chartered Bank's representative branch in Vietnam who has responsibility for Burma. 'I feel that constructive engagement with Burma will at least bring them in contact with what is happening in the rest of the world and help them rejoin the community of nations.' Maybe. But for a Hong Kong-based Burmese professional with close ties to his homeland, attitudes like Brinsden's do not cut much ice. 'Any US dollar that goes into Burma helps to entrench the Slorc,' said the businessman, who requested anonymity to protect his relatives in Burma. 'There is no trickle-down effect when it comes to investment, and the people are no better off. The money goes into the generals back pockets. Multi-national companies are not exactly known for their moral probity. For them, the colour of money is enough.' And the colour of money in Burma is getting deeper and richer. According to statistics compiled by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (TDC), GDP growth is running close to 7 per cent per annum, while exports have increased by over 10 per cent per annum and imports by over 30 per cent per annum. GDP per capita stands at approximately US$650, while gross domestic product in 1994 - the latest figure available - was $30 billion. 'Under a foreign investment law enacted in 1988, foreign investors are allowed to repatriate profits, enjoy tax exemptions during the first three years of operation and import operating equipment duty free; they are also guaranteed against nationalisation. The law allows 100 per cent-owned firms to be established and requires at least 35 per cent foreign investment in joint ventures,' reported the TDC. This is generous by regional standards. In fact, by March 1994, foreign investment in Burma totalled $1.27 billion. More up-to-date statistics are not available, but it is fair to assume this figure has increased significantly since the military government has donned its suit of respectability. Or, at least, its suit of semi-respectability. According to the Burmese expatriate: 'Companies like to work in an environment that has few restraints. To bribe the army people is much cheaper than to compete in an open tender. They prefer it. Most of the joint venture partners are also relatives of the military leaders.' Strong words, but wrong words, say businessmen. Hongkong Bank, which has a representative office in Burma, says it sympathises with Amnesty International's aspirations, but says the organisation needs some grounding in economic reality. 'We think that restricting investment and trade would serve only to retard the country's progress to the detriment of the Burmese people,' said bank spokesman Michael Broadbent. 'With trade and investment comes the alleviation of poverty. In our view, economic development and the alleviation of poverty are also a human right.' The Burmese expatriate could not disagree more. 'Bringing in money prolongs the suffering of the Burmese people,' he said. When it comes to investing in Burma, the idea of the ethical responsibilities of companies is a case of 'never the twain shall meet'. For the territory used to full-force free markets and capitalism, when it comes to business, it is easy to dismiss the idea of ethics in big business as mealy-mouthed liberalism from the mouths of idealists. But in the United States, shareholder meetings have been disrupted by vocal human rights activists, also shareholders, who demand that their company cease all investment in Burma. Their tactics have paid off. Major firms such as Macy's Department Store, Levi Strauss and Reebok have ceased trading with Burma. Continued publicity about alleged human rights abuses in the country has made investing in Burma an explosive boardroom issue. But is this kind of activism likely to happen in Hong Kong? Will the territory's hongs bow to the pressure of a vocal minority? Will they voluntarily cease investing in Burma as a result of a bout of corporate conscience? It did not happen in Indonesia - or Malaysia or South Korea or China. So will it in Burma? Historical precedent indicates 'fat chance'. As the Burmese expatriate reluctantly concedes: 'There is very little chance of it happening.'