The generals know they cannot improve the social and economic plight of the Burmese, but they will not let go.
Fourteen years ago, Burma’s present junta came into power promising to bring about democracy and prosperity. The promises were never honoured. Now, trouble is brewing in military-ruled Burma.
Rangoon-watchers and analysts warn that a repetition of the social unrest and political instability that took place in 1988 is looming on the horizon. As the social and economic situation deteriorates, people are acting out of desperation and frustration. “We are on the brink of starvation”, a senior Rangoon-based journalist told this correspondent in early September. However, his warning will not reach the Burmese people or authorities. His dire prognosis will not be allowed into print by the notorious Press Censorship Board.
Burma’s military leaders do not like to hear 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 street in Rangoon, the journalist’s words have the inescapable ring of truth.
In September, Burma’s currency, the kyat, plummeted to new all-time lows on the black market. By the end of that month, the beleaguered unit had hit an unprecedented low of 1100 kyat to the dollar, after losing some 10 percent of its value over a just a week. Those who felt that the worst had been reached were in for further bad news as the slide continued and the kyat reached 1200 to the dollar. At the time of writing, the bottom is still nowhere in sight. While this precipitous plunge will play havoc with the country’s medium- to long-term economic planning, which at the best of times is seldom better than farcical, in the here and now it is already pushing many citizens to the edge. Prices have skyrocketed, making even the most basic foodstuff prohibitively expensive. The price of eggs has reached outrageous levels. An egg costs 30-40 kyat, enough to put it beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.
Burma’s opposition leaders are well aware of the deteriorating economic situation. In August, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), told this correspondent, “When the economy is in shambles, the social conditions of the country only get worse. When both of these factors continue to worsen, it is the people who have to bear the brunt. Our country will suffer greatly if the current dismal economic situation is not reversed”.
Burma’s economic deterioration has been accompanied by an alarming increase in urban crime rates. Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, appear to be the worst affected. There have been reports of looting by large crowds in the suburbs of Mandalay. At a press conference in end-September, a government official denied reports of the lootings but admitted that “some people stole rice”. Reportedly, hunger-related crime has become so widespread that the generals have been unable to bring it under control. Ironically, the generals themselves are now living in a climate of fear and insecurity. To prevent the situation from unravelling, the government media has been instructed to avoid reporting instances of such crime.
Despite the growing hardship of the people and simmering unrest, Burma’s generals have shown no signs of moving towards much-needed economic reforms. Instead, they have demonstrated once again that they are in deep denial about their incapacity to meet the country’s most basic needs. On 16 August 2002, at a regular weekly press conference, the deputy minister of home affairs, Brig-General Thura Myint Maung, went on the defensive when a foreign news service correspondent asked him about rising unemployment and the issue of human trafficking, which is fuelled by the desperate desire of the Burmese to look for work in neighbouring countries. Rather than answer the question, the general 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 assured his incredulous audience. It is difficult to say if Thura Myint Maung’s off the cuff comments really reflect the government’s grasp of conditions facing the great majority of Burmese. Nevertheless it is clear enough that official statistics paint a picture of the economy that few Burmese can 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 nearly 11 percent in the fiscal year ending March 2002. He said the high growth rate was the result of opening up the economy and the adoption of a market-oriented system. However, according to one insider, UN envoy Razali Ismail, who is assisting in negotiations between the NLD and the military junta, expressed his “disappointment” with the figures cited by Soe Tha when they met recently in Rangoon.
Japanese experts and government officials who have been pushing for economic reform in Burma reportedly shared 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 troubled by evidence that General David Abel, the junta’s economics czar, has been sidelined. According to well-informed sources, the move to marginalise Abel, who is regarded as open to reform proposals, was engineered by Senior-General Than Shwe, head of the military government. 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, Abel’s absence was conspicuous. Instead, Than Shwe sent Dr Than Nyunt, the chairman of the civil service selection and training board, who wields little or no influence over economic policy. Than Nyunt’s sole qualification is that he can prepare reports that appeal to the head of the junta.
Sadly, after more than a decade of at least professing to want progress, it appears that the Burmese regime is intent on bringing about a regressive trend. “We are heading back to the Ne Win era, when reports were prepared by puppet ministers and bureaucrats who did not dare to upset the Old Man”, commented one journalist. Economic mismanagement under the dictatorship of General Ne Win had forced Burma to seek Least Developed Country (LDC) status in 1987, a year before the country was rocked by massive social and political upheaval. Today, many observers fear that the regime’s misguided policies will set Burma up 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 warn that looting and petty crime are unavoidable and say that the government should begin to treat the situation seriously.
In an interview to the London-based Burma Campaign, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “We do not think in terms of GNP and GDP, we are not thinking in terms of money flow and things like that. We are thinking in terms of the effect on everyday lives of people. The way the situation and the economy affect the health of people, the education of our young people, that is what we are thinking of. But the generals are not paying attention. Instead, they seem preoccupied with visiting temples and attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
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 problems by creating anti-Muslim riots in this predominantly Buddhist country.
Meanwhile, Burma’s military leaders show little sign of the political will required to enter into a substantive dialogue with the NLD. While numerous protests were organised in the West and in ASEAN nations on the occasion of the military regime’s 14th anniversary, Burma’s foreign minister, Win Aung, told the United Nations General Assembly that his government stands by the goal of introducing a multiparty political system. But the government has set no timetable for democratic reform.
Over the last decade, despite international pressure and sanctions, the military government’s human rights record has shown little improvement. Over 1500 political prisoners still remain in custody. The notorious Insein prison, located in suburban Rangoon, has recently seen the addition of new inmates. Two activist students who were staging a peaceful protest in front of the city hall during the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad’s recent visit to Rangoon were apprehended by intelligence officials and thrown into the prison. Peaceful gatherings are still banned in Burma. Last year, a 76-yearold professor, staging a solo protest at the same location asking the regime to initiate political reform, was arrested by security officials and sentenced to seven years imprisonment.
Quite apart from arrests, there is the urgent issue of the treatment of political prisoners. Recently, Aung May Thu, a 60-year-old political prisoner suffering from a perforated gastric ulcer, died after an unsuccessful eight-hour surgery. He had been arrested in 1989 on charges of being linked to the defunct Communist Party of Burma and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Although the sentence was commuted to 10 years, and he had served his term, he was kept in prison under a law allowing indefinite detention of persons considered a threat to the state. He will not be the last political détenu to die in prison, and he was not the first either. Dozens of political prisoners have died in detention as a result of maltreatment and medical neglect.
As the political stalemate continues the people of Burma face the prospect of living through years of darkness. It seems the stubborn generals will carry on ruling the country with an iron fist, even though it is clear to all that they lack the political will to solve Burma’s long-standing problems. Sooner or later in Burma social and political unrest will erupt, at which point it is feared that the generals will resort to their old technique of unleashing repression and violence. The future of Burma looks bleak.