Wed 28 Feb 2007
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
Bangkok: Crippling economic realities in military-ruled Burma may pose a more formidable threat to the junta than the simmering political front, say analysts in the wake of a rare public protest in Rangoon over a range of domestic problems.
The arrests of people involved in peaceful protest against high prices of food, failing social services and lack of reliable supply have elicited wider public support since the hardships are being felt across the country, they said.
Over the past week nine persons were taken into custody for demonstrating outside a crowded market in downtown Rangoon. All nine were, however, reported released on Tuesday. The protests involving a group of 25 people were the first public demonstration in almost a decade against the military government that has a record of treating dissidents brutally. In 1988, troops opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators killing several hundred people. ‘’The food shortages and the price hikes have become unbearable for many people. This is the work of our military government,” a Burmese economist told IPS on condition of anonymity. ‘’Rising inflation also helps to explain why these people took to the streets.”
Officially, inflation for the 2006-2007 period was estimated to be around 26 percent, up from the nine percent inflation rate for the 2005-2006 period, he added. ‘’But unofficial estimates indicate that inflation in Burma has now reached between 50-60 percent.”
There have been months when people in Rangoon have been forced to make drastic cuts in food they can buy due to price hikes that are sudden and steep, says Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst living in exile. ‘’Everything is going up on a daily or weekly basis, like onions, rice, cooking oil. There are more families having difficulty making ends meet.”
‘’The demonstrators have touched a spot that places the military government in a dilemma,” he explained in an interview. ‘’It shows that the military has not been able to provide anything to the people, despite saying that things are okay. And releasing any of those detained will only encourage more protests on the worsening economy.”
The official reaction, however, has been predictable. The junta’s mouthpiece, ‘The New Light of Myanmar,’ accused the demonstrators, who had held placards and distributed a statement to the regime, of trying to incite the crowd and of violating the existing law. ‘’The demonstration made the public dislike and disrespect the government.”
The latest show of defiance follows similar rare displays of opposition towards the junta since mid-2006 by respected former university students. These efforts, which have included a signature campaign and a letter-writing campaign, were largely political in nature. They mark a break from the silence that has dominated Burma’s political landscape since 1988 when a pro-democracy uprising on the streets was brutally crushed by the military. The junta also refused to recognise the outcome of a 1990 parliamentary election, won convincingly by the opposition parties.
Last year saw a steady flow of complaints about the scale of economic mismanagement by the generals, who have continued to rule the country with an iron grip, crushing dissent, silencing the media and imprisoning opposition figures. In January 2006 there were fears of increasing job scarcity, followed by a 100 percent hike in the price of electricity in May and an order in July by Rangoon’s mayor to control the sale and distribution of rice, the staple dish in the country, to avoid a scarcity. The year 2006 had begun with food prices having risen by 14 percent over the previous year.
Against that was a decision by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the ruling junta is officially known, to reward civil servants and military officers with a salary hike that ranged between 500 percent and 1,000 percent. The new wages came into effect from April last year.
According to the Alternative ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) Network on Burma, a regional human rights lobby group, the scale of military involvement in the Burmese economy is evident in the regulations imposed on local farmers. In some agricultural areas, ‘’farmers were expected to provide 50 kg (of rice) per acre to local SPDC authorities — and were only paid one-third the market price,” it reveals in a recent report. Across the country, ‘’restrictions were placed on the transportation of rice to Rangoon, and sellers are required to have a letter of permission from local authorities.”
The impact, consequently, has been felt in child malnutrition and poverty rates. Burma has nearly 22 percent of its over 50 million people living in poverty, while malnutrition among children under five years is 32 percent, states the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its ‘Human Development Report 2006.’ Burma’s public spending for health is 0.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), placing it among the governments with the worst record for this service, adds the UNDP report.
What is more, the Burmese military regime’s absolute control of all state institutions and its role as the chief policy maker of the economy have given it little room to escape the charges of the crisis it has created. ‘’By any standard of a modern state, the economy of Myanmar has already collapsed,” wrote David Steinberg in a 2005 issue of the ‘Burma Economic Watch (BEW), an on-line journal published by the economics department of Macquarie University, Australia.
‘’The implications of continued military rule and the extension of macro-economy and social policies â€¦ means that the crisis will deepen,” he added of the country that has been renamed Myanmar by the ruling junta. ‘’Poverty will intensify in various areas.”
The recent demonstrations have brought into focus a view that political exiles from Burma should be gunning for the SPDC on the economic front in addition to the usual campaigns about human rights violations and political suppression.
‘’Everything is political in Burma. People cannot eat; people don’t have food,” Soe Aung, foreign affairs spokesman for the National Council for the Union of Burma, an umbrella body of Burmese political groups in exile, told IPS. ‘’It has never been as bad before. It shows how the government has badly mismanaged the country.”