Burma’s Electricity Quandaries

In late 2011, Burma surprised the world by cancelling the massive, Chinese-financed Myitsone dam in Kachin state. In early 2012, the Burmese government again astounded many by suspending an $8 billion, 4,000-megawatt, coal-fired power plant at Dawei in the southern part of the country, due mainly to environmental concerns. As reported by Bloomburg, “the Dawei project, undertaken by Thailand’s Italian-Thai Development construction company, is to be a massive heavy industry zone with a total investment of more than $50 billion, and the cancellation of the power plant may hinder its development.” Reuters has also cast doubt on the Dawei project, which Burmese officials had hoped would become the “new global gateway of Indo-China.”

Although environmentalists were delighted by the cancellation of the dam and power plant projects, many Burmese are concerned about the country’s chronic shortage of electricity. Admittedly, the Dawei project would have been of little help on this score, as most of the power generated would have been exported to Thailand, just as most of the electricity from the Myitsone dam project would have gone to China. But the question remains open as to how Burma can supply itself with adequate electricity. Although the country has large supplies of natural gas, most production is locked into long-term export contracts with China and Thailand.

As The Irrawaddy summarizes the situation: “Amid all the expansive talk of Burma being on the cusp of an economic boom, with special business zones, ports, railways, factories and half a million tourists queuing at the door, there’s one very vital ingredient missing—electricity.” Or perhaps more than one; the same article concludes with a quotation noting that, “Corruption, a weak legal system and judiciary, continuing human rights abuses and a lack of protection for investors are significant risks that may take some time for Myanmar [Burma] to fully address.”


Saskatchewan’s Oil-Driven Population Boom

Canadian news sources have been proudly announcing the fact that the province of Saskatchewan posted a population growth rate of 6.7 percent over the past five years, after having declined by a 1.1 percent rate between 2001 and 2006. Reports emphasize the international origin of many of Saskatchewan’s new residents, with China, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines figuring prominently. The province, boosters claim, “is becoming increasingly diverse, dynamic and cosmopolitan.” Many newcomers do, however, report difficulties adjusting to the winter climate.

Saskatchewan’s recent growth represents a major departure from historical patterns. As can be seen in the paired graphs, the province has experienced relative demographic stability for decades, much in contrast to neighboring, oil-rich Alberta. But Saskatchewan is now riding the energy boom as well. Although Alberta’s famous (or infamous) oil sands do not extend into the province, the Bakken Formation, usually associated with North Dakota, does. Until recently, the massive oil deposits in the Bakken were not economically recoverable. Now they are, thanks the environmentally problematic fracking techniques more commonly associated with natural gas.

  It will be interesting to see what the oil boom does to the political culture of Saskatchewan. The province has a long heritage of social democracy, rooted in agrarian populism, although its voting patterns have been trending in a more conservative direction in recent year. But Saskatchewan still has a very different political culture from that of neighboring Alberta, as can be seen on the map. Alberta is by far the most conservative Canadian province, as reflected in its nickname, “the Texas of Canada.” An increasingly energy-based economy in Saskatchewan may generate more conservative attitudes there as well, although such tendencies may be counteracted by the province’s increasing cosmopolitanism.

Tribal War and Natural Gas in Papua New Guinea

With roughly a thousand languages divided into a surprising number of linguistic families, New Guinea is noted for its extraordinary cultural diversity (see map above). The central highlands of New Guinea also form a diversity center of a different sort: that of warfare. Tribal combat remains ubiquitous, especially in the troubled Southern Highland province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Most conflicts here are localized, short, and fought with traditional weapons, but the cumulative casualty rates can be substantial.

Few tribal wars from New Guinea reach the global media. Access is difficult when not impossible, and the stakes are regarded as low by the rest of the world. When conflicts are reported it is generally due to unusual circumstances. In February 2010, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recounted a battle between two clans in the southern highlands that was provoked by a young man sending a pornographic text message to a young woman in a different village. Her male relatives were offended enough to attack the sender’s kin with bows and arrows, knives, and homemade guns. In the ensuing fight, two people were killed, several were injured, and a number of houses were burned.

The armed struggles of New Guinea can provoke serious gender disputes. Women often complain that pervasive warfare makes it difficult for them to feed their children. According to a November 2008 report in the Daily Mail, the women of two villages in the eastern highlands decided to end the local cycle of violence in a drastic manner: over a ten-year period, they killed all male babies. “It’s because of the terrible fights that have brought death and destruction to our villages for the past 20 years that all the womenfolk have agreed to have all new-born male babies killed,” reported one local women. Women were able do so – if the reports are true – because they lead relatively sex-segregated lives; men control men’s houses, while women control their own. According to the Daily Mail article, promising efforts were being made by a local pastor of the Salvation Army to mediate between the warriors and the mothers of their children.

A few tribal wars in New Guinea have global repercussions, prompting occasional reports in the global media. The southern highlands have vast natural gas deposits – according to some reports, the largest underdeveloped fields outside of Qatar. Plans to exploit the gas have been in place for some time, but tribal violence has delayed implementation. In 2006, the PNG government declared a state of emergency in the Southern Highlands, imposing a curfew and sending in soldiers, so that development plans could proceed.

In December 2009, ExxonMobil and several partners determined that conditions were stable enough to proceed with a $15 billion liquefied natural gas project. This would be the largest foreign investment in Papua New Guinea’s history, potentially tripling its exports. On February 11, 2010, however,Radio New Zealand Internationalreported that the project was inciting tribal warfare, even among groups that had previously had peaceful relations. As a result, Exxon had to suspend operations in several areas. As Dame Carol Kidu, Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Community Development stated, “suddenly with this LNG project and all of the tensions and jealousies over the land ownership and all these things, it blew up into a tribal war, a village war; inter-village war.”

Papua New Guinea has had its share of trouble since independence in 1975. Its most serious insurgency had been on the mineral-rich island of Bougainville, physically located in the Solomon Island chain. The Bougainville rebellion was largely defused with an autonomy agreement in 1997. Meanwhile, security deteriorated in the highlands. In December 2004, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that Papua New Guinea was heading downhill and even risked becoming a failed state. In 2009, widespread anti-Chinese rioting and looting further damaged the country’s economy.

Will the development of its natural gas fields give Papua New Guinea the money that it needs to genuinely develop? Or will it form a “resource curse” that will enrich a few, further impoverish others, and provoke more tribal warfare? Either scenario is possible.