Monthly Archives: July 2013

Power to the people!

For the last week, we’ve been researching various aspects of electricity generation and distribution, and assessing different ways in which Myanmar could substantially increase its electricity supply … in less than a year. The ruling USDA is aiming to eliminate power blackouts in Yangon by April 2014, supposedly in order to improve the foreign investment climate in Yangon. The urgency of the situation is, undoubtedly, heavily influenced by the need for the USDA to be able to show tangible improvement in the quality of life of Myanmar citizens ahead of the coming elections in 2015 in order for them to stand a chance of re-election … and what better way to do that than improve energy access?

Those controlling the diesel market in Yangon have placed their bets on off-grid diesel generators being the answer to Yangon’s energy crisis, and have allegedly already begun hoarding diesel in anticipation of a run on diesel in the near future. Our task was to try to come up with feasible alternatives to diesel generators which, with such a short timeline, was difficult to say the least. We were also asked to draft conceptual roadmaps on a variety of infrastructure project and electricity generation related issues. I worked primarily on compiling a guideline for government officials tasked with appraising infrastructure project proposals, as well as different project financing options (which, needless to say, there weren’t many considering the fact that April 2014 is only 8 months away!)

Energy access is one of the most important, and most political, issues in Myanmar today. Approximately 75% of Myanmar citizens have no access to electricity, despite Myanmar having substantial reserves of oil and natural gas, as well as notable hydropower and solar potential. Without improved energy access, much-needed social and economic reform in Myanmar will not be possible. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the country’s oil and natural gas were signed away to Thailand and China by the previous military regime, who were unable to access crucial foreign exchange in any other way due to the significant international sanctions against the country. The current regime is now under growing public pressure to renegotiate the existing oil and natural gas contracts in order to better provide for Myanmar’s growing energy needs. The Myanmar government has also halted several large-scale hydro projects in the last two years in the wake of public outrage at the fact that almost all (and, in some cases, all) of the power they were to generate was to be exported to China, Thailand or India. Drastic changes to Myanmar’s energy policies are urgently needed, and such policies will need to prioritise the energy needs of Myanmar citizens if social unrest is to be avoided.

This weekend marked the 66th anniversary of the assassination of Bogyoke (General) Aung San and six of his cabinet ministers. Bogyoke Aung San is considered to be the founder of modern-day Burma, and was the father of Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Every day on the way to work, we pass by his house, the same house where Aung San Suu Kyi grew up and where she later spent many years under house arrest. The gate is decorated with a portrait of Bogyoke Aung San and the flag of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which is emblazoned with the peacock, the symbol of the Royal Court of Ava, the once capital of pre-colonial Upper Burma.

better entrance

We took the circle train around Yangon with some work colleagues yesterday, and saw parts of Yangon that we would never have otherwise had the opportunity to see.

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… and we received so many smiles from strangers and waves from playing children!

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Some kids showed off their juggling skills for me, tossing small fruit into the air:

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It was certainly the first train that I’ve been on that does not quite come to a stop at each station – rather it slows right now, and then rocks backwards and forwards gently until it’s time to slowly move on!

A week of great discussions

Our host organisation in Myanmar, the Centre for Economic and Social Development (one of three sub-divisions of the Myanmar Development Resources Institute) has recently started a weekly lecture/training/discussion series where an expert (or a relative expert anyway!) speaks to CESD staff about a topic of current importance or concern in Myanmar. Of late, we’ve been lucky to have more than one of these sessions every week.

This week, one of our co-workers, a Yale law student who is also interning at CESD over the summer, led a session on the WTO and it’s relevance to Myanmar at a time when Myanmar is slowly re-establishing trade in ASEAN and further afield. It is a little-known fact that Burma was one of the founding members of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was inaugurated in 1948 and later “housed” by the WTO. Burma’s early involvement in the GATT, followed by six decades of lack of participation, is very symbolic of Burma’s disappearance from international trade and relations until now, despite its enormous promise at independence. However, entering international trade so late does mean that there is much scope for Myanmar to benefit from the experiences of other countries that have gone through the process of trade liberalisation already (which is basically every other country except North Korea).

Another visiting Yale law student spoke on federalism, which is historically one of the biggest and most controversial issues in Myanmar. In 1947, under the Panglong Agreement, federalism had been promised by General Aung San to the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups. However, General Aung San was assassinated later that year, and calls for the federalism promises made at Panglong to be respected have been ignored ever since. Now, in order for the Myanmar government to end the ethnic conflict that has plagued the country since 1948 (as well as for the government to be able to access the vast natural resources located in these ethnic areas), the issue of federalism needs to be comprehensively addressed. However, the idea of transferring a degree of power to states under a federal system is terrifying to the Myanmar government, which is still largely composed of former military generals who are deeply uneasy at the prospect of relinquishing any power. The current climate of reform in Myanmar is allowing Burmese citizens to discuss this touchy issue openly for the first time in decades, and it is a great privilege to be part of these discussions.

We also had an interesting discussion on hate speech, facilitated by Dick Winfield, a media law professor at Columbia Law School. The timing of this discussion, coming as it did less than a week after the Myanmar government banned circulation (in both hard and soft copy) of Time magazine’s article on buddhist-muslim violence in Myanmar (the edition was infamously  titled “The Face of Buddhist Terror” and had Monk Wirathu, an extremist monk, on the cover). Our Burmese counterparts spoke about how they felt about the article, specifically how they felt about Time’s crude blanket association of all Burmese buddhists with the extremist views of Monk Wirathu, and its arguably even cruder cover title. We also spoke about whether the title and article would constitute hate speech under various different legal systems, and whether the Myanmar government was justified in its decision to ban the article (and what kind of precedent the Myanmar government has set by the ban). It was very sad to see first hand how hurt and offended our Burmese co-workers were by Time’s cover page, especially knowing that its arguable exaggeration was likely influenced by the desire to sell as many copies of the magazine as possible.

Finally, I attended a round-table discussion hosted by the Myanmar Peace Centre on environmental protection in the context of increasing investment (both foreign and domestic) in Myanmar. Myanmar currently has no environmental regulations or guidelines and, whilst drafting and enacting such regulations will take time,  investment permits continue to be issued daily, including those for the production of oil and natural gas and the construction of pipelines, all of which have been devastating to the environment. The round-table discussion brought together government officials and civil society leaders to discuss how best to deal with the situation, both short-term and long-term. It was encouraging to see government officials taking this important issue seriously, and it will be very interesting to see how they go about enacting, implementing and enforcing compliance with environmental regulations in Myanmar.

It is after weeks like this that I sometimes feel as though I am taking more than I am giving in my summer placement. I have learnt so much about so many different things since arriving in Yangon – I only hope to be able to contribute something of equal value in return. This week, I will be starting to put together a proposal for the establishment of a sovereign wealth fund in Myanmar, which should be interesting – and hopefully will soon lead a CESD staff discussion on sovereign wealth funds 🙂

We spent last weekend in Kyaiktiyo in Mon state. Kyaiktiyo (or Golden Rock) is at the top of a very steep mountain, which you can either walk up or ride up in the back of an old truck (which fits about 30 people in). We decided to ride up … and driving up those unbelievably steep and narrow roads in such an old and overly-packed truck was terrifying. I was convinced we would not make it up to the top alive. The first day was very foggy, we couldn’t see more than 10 metres in front of us – in fact, we initially walked past the golden rock without seeing it.

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But the next morning was clear and beautiful, and we got to see the incredible views finally:

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mon colour

Needless to say, we opted to walk down the mountain rather than experience the terror of the downhill ride in the truck … and were subsequently very stiff for most of the week!