I recently returned from Burma, a fast-changing and stunningly beautiful country, where I attended the 2013 World Economic Forum on East Asia — an indication of the country’s rapid emergence from dictatorship and international isolation. The forum brought together senior leaders from around the world representing industry, government, academia, and civil society, all looking to help ensure Burma’s sustainable economic development. The pace of Burma’s political, economic, and social reforms is being matched by a boom in investment and construction. In Rangoon, Burma’s once tranquil landscape will soon give way to a bustling metropolis; in Nay Pyi Taw, the city’s natural beauty is combined with a promise of agricultural development. Burma’s geostrategic location between India and China and extensive natural resource wealth make it a natural crossroads for Asian trade and a focal point for broader regional integration.
The United States Government is working very hard to support Burma in its reform and the democratic transition processes. The energy sector will be vital to this effort, but it continues to face many challenges. According to the Asian Development Bank, only 26 percent of the Burmese population has access to electricity, with the remaining population relying heavily on traditional biomass for its energy needs. However, the country is endowed with a tremendous resource base that, with the support of the global community and responsible private investment, can power its energy objectives and help Burma reach its economic potential.
At the World Economic Forum on East Asia, optimism was very high among participants, which included Burmese government officials as well as regional public and private sector leaders. It was clear that there is significant opportunity for investment in areas like clean-technology development. Burma’s energy challenges are broad and overall sector planning is needed, including strategic planning for the country’s significant oil and gas sector, power sector reform, and rural electrification.
Critical challenges will include the establishment of energy efficiency standards, reform of energy subsidies, development of investment frameworks, improving human capacity, and increasing access to clean and efficient cooking solutions. To address these challenges, the Department of State’s Bureau of Energy Resources (ENR), along with other donor governments and international institutions, is working to help harness the country’s resources in a transparent manner that will best serve its domestic population and simultaneously promote sustainable development and respect for labor standards and human rights. This work includes ENR initiatives such as the U.S.-Asia Pacific Comprehensive Energy Partnership and the Lower Mekong Initiative.
With Burma taking over the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Chairmanship in 2014, all eyes will be on the country’s role in leading towards the ASEAN Economic Community due to be established by 2015. Ensuring the institutional, technical, political, and human capacity to handle their role as ASEAN Chair will be a difficult test for the government, but it will also be an opportunity to demonstrate the progress that has been made so far. To that end, we are committed to working with Burma along with its regional partners to ensure its effective leadership role in this capacity. The potential for growth is tremendous, but it is critical that Burma implement carefully thought-out and crafted policies to develop transparent regulatory frameworks and sustainable energy development.