The lifeless body of a dead Buddhist monk floated down the river.
That's the image still etched in my mind from a documentary I saw a few years ago about the 2007 protests against the military regime in Burma.
The movie was called Burma VJ, and it served as a brutal reminder of Myanmar's long history of oppression and violence against its own people.
That movie, by the way, was released in 2008 — not that long ago, yet it seems like a lifetime now that we're actually witnessing a sitting U.S. president visiting the Southeast Asian nation.
And even more astounding, by the way, are the droves of investors now so eager to capitalize on a “freer” economic climate and access to Myanmar's vast reserves of oil and gas.
There is, however, one problem...
Myanmar does not have vast reserves of oil and gas.
According to the Energy Information Association, Myanmar has about 50 million barrels of proven crude reserves. And while that might be a decent amount for a country hoping to grow its economy (and I put strong emphasis on the word “hoping”), it's barely an accounting error for countries like China, the United States, and the EU.
As for natural gas?
I've seen estimates as high as 23 trillion cubic feet, or just a tad less than what the U.S. consumes every year.
Again, certainly worthwhile for a country like Myanmar, which is in desperate need of infrastructure and energy development... but it sure as hell isn't enough for most countries to even consider looking at in a Google satellite image, much less consider as a viable export.
China's Got Dibs
Despite the less-than-impressive reserve numbers, some folks simply refuse to relent, believing the illusion that the economics of oil production are irrelevant, and it's really just about how much is physically there.
It really is one of the most pathetic and dishonest arguments we hear in today's mainstream media.
Fortunately, that argument often falls on deaf ears in the industry and is really only worth anything on the election trail.
Of course, the best argument I heard last week about the possibility of the United States somehow trying to get at that oil (which I guarantee you China's already got dibs on) is that it will enable the people of Myanmar to share in the riches of oil development...
Yes. Because historically that tends to be how things work out in these situations, right?
A Ghost Town in Nigeria
You may remember this past summer when a fuel tanker veered off a Nigerian road and exploded. Ninety-five people risked and ultimately lost their lives as they rushed towards the inferno to scoop up any remaining viable fuel.
So much for the common folk sacrificing their land and working hard in an effort to share in the riches of oil development!
It's actually one of the most disgusting displays of human indecency we've ever seen. Not only is Nigeria a breeding ground for corruption, war, and brutality, but its oil infrastructure is also so outdated, it's plagued with the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every single year.
And here's the capper: Oil reserves in Nigeria are on the decline.
The African nation that relies on oil for about 75% of its revenues is watching its once-vast bounty of oil dwindle away... and certainly flooding, theft, and corruption are expediting the whole thing.
When all is said and done, there will be a few remaining producers left in Nigeria, scraping the bottom for just a little more.
And all those folks who would one day share in Nigeria's great oil wealth? Well, those who haven't already been killed, maimed, or sent packing will live their remaining years on a polluted wasteland unfit for cockroaches.
So yeah, when you start hearing folks talking about this great Myanmar opportunity, realize the following...
Myanmar doesn't have even a fraction of the oil Nigeria has. Its infrastructure is no better, its government is no less corrupt, and most of the folks there will never have an opportunity to work for a piece of the pie — because it was never intended for them to begin with.
And this doesn't even get into the civil war powder keg that's now sitting dangerously close to a lit match.
As pointed out in Bloomberg last week:
... in Myanmar the abrupt switch from one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world to an increasingly open political environment seems to be igniting interethnic and interreligious conflict across the country. Vigilante violence, banditry, and competition over scarce resources such as rice are all on the rise.
In a recent report on Myanmar, the International Crisis Group raised the prospect that intercommunal violence in western Arakan State, which has raged for six months now and killed at least 200 people, could spread to other parts of the country, leading to a full-on civil war.
So if you think Myanmar is going to be the next booming oil town with the potential to make you insanely wealthy, save your money.
Even if there is some way to play this thing, you won't be able to wet your beak. And the risk is too great to even want to try, anyway.
Look, if it's real oil wealth you're after, go where the oil is plentiful, the risk is minimal at best, and the profits are virtually guaranteed...
My colleague Keith Kohl will show you the way. Click here to get started.
To a new way of life and a new generation of wealth...
@JeffSiegel on Twitter
Jeff is the managing editor of Energy and Capital and contributing analyst for the Energy Investor, an independent investment research service focusing primarily on stocks in the oil & gas, modern energy and infrastructure markets. He has been a featured guest on Fox, CNBC, and Bloomberg Asia, and is the author of the best-selling book, Investing in Renewable Energy: Making Money on Green Chip Stocks. For more on Jeff, go to his editor's page.
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