The original version of this article, by Kirk Talbott, appeared on the Columbia University Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog.
After a half-century of authoritarian rule, armed conflict against millions of ethnic minorities, and natural resource plunder, Burma, also known as Myanmar, now stands at a crossroads. As conditions for peace coalesce and civil society begins to blossom, there is hope once more for Burma’s people.
Burma’s quasi-civilian government, led by reformist Thein Sein, has initiated a series of surprising political openings and continues to engage actively with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of parliament. Civil society and international relations are flourishing in contrast to conditions just one year ago. In May, the United States suspended economic sanctions and President Obama appointed a U.S. Ambassador for the first time in decades.
A new set of challenges emerge, however, around sharing the benefits and responsibilities of governing the country’s diverse wealth of natural resources. Nestled strategically between China and India, Burma has been isolated from the world’s attention since a coup in 1962. Its military government has consolidated a brutal grip on power through the sale of its rich timber, mineral, natural gas, and other resources, primarily to China and Thailand. This practice expanded after 1995, when the regime brokered a series of cease fire agreements with several ethnic armies along mountainous border areas. (For the first time in 60 years the Karen National Union joined almost all other major ethnic armies in agreeing to a cease fire, with the notable exception of the Kachin Independence Army.)
Oil and gas revenues fund the Tatmadaw, Burma’s half-million-strong army, one of Asia’s largest. Currently the huge offshore Shwe and Yadana natural gas reserves provide more than 90 percent of the nation’s foreign exchange. Chinese and Thai companies fund extensive pipeline, hydro-power, and transport networks as Burma becomes a potential regional economic corridor and natural resources production hub. China looms large in the geo-political equation investing over $12 billion in Burma in 2011.
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Image Credit: Shwe gas line map, courtesy of Shwe Gas Movement.