World Bank vows to help Myanmar 'turn lights on'

The World Bank pledged Tuesday to help Myanmar improve people's access to electricity as it hailed a "new beginning" in its relations with the former pariah state.

World Bank officials visited the former army-ruled country for three days of talks with President Thein Sein, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other actors in the country's rapid transformation.

"Turning on the lights in Myanmar will enable children to read at night, and encourage villagers to start new businesses which will lead to growth and jobs," said World Bank East Asia and Pacific vice president Axel van Trotsenburg.

"Sufficient, reliable and affordable electricity will help relieve poverty in rural areas and create opportunities for all," he said in a statement.

Only one in four people have access to reliable electricity supplies in Myanmar, according to the World Bank.

In November the Washington-based institution promised aid of $245 million to support Myanmar's reform drive, resuming assistance for the country after a quarter-century absence.

"The first project is a project to provide financing for replacement of gas-furnished turbines and we would like to present that project to the board, our board, for approval in September," Trotsenburg told reporters.

The World Bank closed its Yangon office in 1987 and ceased new lending after the then-ruling junta stopped making payments on debts worth hundreds of millions of dollars left from previous programmes.

Myanmar last month cleared its arrears to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank with the help of a Japanese bridge loan, enabling the two lenders to resume assistance to the country.

"That has given us the opportunity of new beginning of our relationship with Myanmar," said Jin-Yong Cai, chief executive of International Finance Corp (IFC), a World Bank development lender.

IFC last month pledged $2 million for a new microfinance bank that aims to help small businesses in the impoverished nation.

President Thein Sein has overseen a series of dramatic reforms since taking office in 2011, including the release of political prisoners and the election of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.

In response, the West has begun rolling back sanctions and foreign firms are lining up to invest in the country, eyeing its huge natural resources, large population and strategic location between China and India.