Political and economic changes in Burma have been as rapid as they are surprising. In just three years, the country has gone from an isolated military dictatorship to a largely open country that is at least semi-democratic and has formally adopted a market economy. Both the European Union and the United States have eased economic sanctions, and dozens of foreign firms have moved in. Foreign direct investment increased by 160 percent in 2013 alone.
›October 11, 2012 // By Wilson Center Staff
Spend a day in Kathmandu, Nepal’s sprawling capital of four million people, and you’ll quickly notice what has long been a fact of life in this landlocked Himalayan country, and many other South Asian nations – no reliable electricity supply exists. Up to eight times a day, neighborhoods throughout the city suffer rolling power cuts due to load shedding, causing residents and businesses alike to either carry on in the darkness or rely on expensive, diesel-consuming generators to keep the lights on. Although the country’s civil war ended in 2006, carrying the promise of restored domestic stability and accelerated economic development, Nepal’s economy has remained hamstrung by an inconsistent energy supply, with only 40 percent of the population having access to electricity. This situation persists despite the fact that the country sits on top of a virtual goldmine – an estimated 80,000 megawatts (MW) of untapped hydroelectricity, of which it has harnessed a scant 700 MW.
Burma (also known as Myanmar), a country plagued by internal political turmoil and direct or tacit military rule since 1962, had its first general elections in 50 years in 2010 and long-time jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in the National Assembly, but questions remain as to how much power the military is willing to cede. Demography provides reason for hope that this turn towards democracy is more than temporary.
›June 18, 2012 // By Wilson Center StaffThe 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.
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