By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON (Reuters) - A delegation of American business leaders will visit Myanmar soon, Myanmar industry officials said on Wednesday, another sign of strengthening U.S. ties with the long-isolated state despite sanctions.
The visit would come less than three months after Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years and said Washington stood ready to support reforms in the country and possibly lift sanctions.
The trip, expected in February, is unusual given the presence of U.S. sanctions but it coincides with the most dramatic reforms in the resource-rich, former British colony since the military took power in what was then known as Burma in a 1962 coup.
A business leader and senior member of the Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industries (MFCCI) confirmed the planned visit. He declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
The businessman also said that Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and head of the Gates Foundation, would be part of the group, but a spokesman for Gates in Seattle, Washington denied this, saying there was "no truth" to the report.
Business executives, mostly from Asia, have swarmed into the commercial capital Yangon in recent weeks to scout for investment opportunities in the country of 60 million people, one of the last frontier markets in Asia.
Another industry official said the U.S. executives would meet President Thein Sein, visit tourist spots and spend time with local business leaders, many of whom face targeted sanctions by the U.S. government.
Some investment analysts have compared Myanmar's state of development to Vietnam in 1994 when American sanctions against Hanoi were lifted. But Myanmar's location is considered more strategic, nestled between rising powers India and China with ports on the Indian Ocean.
Before late last year, when reforms gathered steam, China was emerging as the dominant investor in the country's resources -- from natural gas to timber and precious gems.
Chinese workers are building a multi-billion-dollar pipeline, hydro-power dams and highway projects that underpin more than $14 billion of pledged Chinese investment in Myanmar's 2010/11 (April-March) fiscal year, taking total foreign direct investment promises to $20 billion from just $300 million a year before, official data show.
Executives from Japanese companies have also taken an interest in recent weeks. Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano this week leads a delegation that includes officials from Hitachi Ltd, Toshiba Corp, Mitsui & Co Ltd, Itochu Corp, JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp and Marubeni Corp.
Last week, U.S. billionaire investor George Soros visited the country and said he had agreed to set up an official base for his philanthropic work in Myanmar after meetings with the country's president and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar has been closed off to the world for nearly half a century of often-brutal authoritarian rule. The former military regime handed power in March to a civilian government stacked with former generals who surprised the world by embarking on a program of reforms and strengthening relations with the West.
Myanmar, however, remains vastly underdeveloped and is one of Asia's poorest countries after decades of isolation, sanctions and economic mismanagement by its former military rulers.
(Corrects to make clear Bill Gates not part of group)
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Jason Szep and David Storey)