Rangoon’s generals ignore simmering social unrest
September 7 , 2002
“WE are on the brink of starvation,” a Rangoon based senior journalist in his 50s last week told the Irrawaddy a magazine published in Chiang Mai.
However, his warning won’t reach the Burmese people or authorities. This journalist, who writes regular columns for several well-known journals and magazines, knows well that he would never be permitted to put his dire prognosis into print.
Burma’s military laders do not like to her such things. Instead, they prefer to read reports prepared by bureaucrats and economists who deliberately amplify Burma’s GDP growth, while ignoring the realities facing the poverty-stricken country.
But on the streets in Rangoon, the journalist’s words have the inescapable ring of truth. In the past few days, Burma’s currency, the kyat, has plummeted to new all-time lows on the black market. By the end of last week, the beleaguered unit had hit an unprecedented level of 1,100 kyat to the dollar, after losing some 10% of its value over a one-week period.
Today, it has fallen further to a level of 1,200 to the dollar. And the bottom is still nowhere in sight.
While this precipitous plunge will play havoc with the country’s medium and long term economic planning which is seldom better than farcical at the best of times – in the here and now, it is already pushing many citizens to the edge. As the kyat plummets, prices are skyrocketing, making even the most basic foodstuffs prohibitively expensive.
“The price of eggs is outrageous these days,” the journalist complained. A single egg fetches 30-40 kyat these days, not much by international standards, but enough to put them beyond the reach of ordinary Burmese.
“Only the middle class can afford to eat eggs now,” noted the journalist.
Even more alarmingly, the crime rate in Rangoon and Mandalay appears to be rising. In June, a wealthy Chinese woman was robbed and murdered by her former cook. The incident, which took place in downtown Rangoon, shocked residents of the city.
Similar cases have also been reported in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city. In the suburbs of the city, there have been reports of looking by larde crowds.
To stem fears of growing insecurity, government papers have been instructed to avoid reporting this recent crime wave. But this has done little to put people’s minds at rest.
“People are worried about security like never before,” said one Rangoon resident.
Despite growing hardships and simmering unrest, Burma’s ruling generals have shown no sign of moving towards much-needed economic reforms. Instead, they’ve demonstrated once again that they are in deep denial about their incapacity to meet the country’s most basic needs.
On Aug 16, at a regular weekly press conference, Brig Gen Thura Myint Maung, the deputy minister of home affairs, became defensive when a reporter for a foreign wire service asked him about rising unemployment and the issue of human trafficking, which is fuelled by the Burmese people’s desperate search for work in neighbouring countries.
Rather than answer the question, the generals simply reiterated the myth that Burma is a land of plenty. “If you step out of your home, you can catch fish and prawns,” he reportedly told his audience of incredulous journalists.
While it is difficult to say if Thura Myint Maung’s off-the-cutt comments really reflect the government’s grasp of Burmese, it is clear that official statistics paint a picture of the economy that few Burmese could even begin to recognise.
Burma’s minister for national planning and economic development, Soe Tha, recently claimed that the country had achieved an economic growth rate of 10.5% in the fiscal year to the high growth rate was the result of opening up the economy and adopting a marketoriented system to raise the economic and social conditions of the people.
According to one insider, however, UN envoy Razali Ismail was “disappointed” with the figures cited by Soe Tha when he met the minister during his recent visit to Rangoon.
Japanese experts and government officials who have also been pushing for economic reform in Burma reportedly shared Mr Razali’s dismay at the junta’s unrealistic assessment of the country’s economic performance.
Sources in Tokyo and Rangoon say that foreign observers have been especially trouble by evidence that Gen David Abel, the junta’s economicstsar, has been sidelined. According to the well informed sources, the move to marginalise Gen Able, who is regarded as open to reform proposals, was engineered by Prime Minister Than Shwe. The sourc added that Gen Than Shwe has begun to roll back some of the tentative reforms already in place.
At a recent meeting between Burmese and Japanese officials in Tokyo, Gen Abel was conspicuously absent. Instead, Gen Than Shwe sent Dr Than Nyuny, chairman of the civil service selection and training board, who wields little or no influence over economic policy.
After more than a decade of at least professing to want progress, It appears that the Burmese regime is regressing. “We are heading back to the Ne Win era, whn reports were prepared by puppet ministers and bureaucrats who didn’t dare to upset the Old Man,” commented one journalist.
Economic mismanagement under the dictatorship of Gen Ne Win forced Burma to seek least Developed Country (LDC) status in 1987, a year before the country was rocked by masslive social and political upheaval.
As things stand at the moment, many observers fear that the regime could be setting the stage for more unrest, as the country’s social and economic crisis deepens against a backdrop of frustration with the slow pace of political change.
Rangoon-based observers warned the government should begin to look into the seriousness of the situation.
The fear among some observers and journalists in Rangoon is that the military may use Burmese Muslims as scapegoats if the situation gets out of control.
In the past, authorities have diverted attention from political and social roblems by creating anti Muslim riots in the predominantly Buddhist country.