Monday, May 19, 2008

Burma's Generals Are The Problem (Times Two)

There's another reason why Burma's military regime is the main problem in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

An interview with Burma specialist Sean Turnell in today's Irrawaddy notes the regime is not only blocking international aid, it is also refusing to spend its own considerable reserves.

Sean Turnell notes:

"I think it’s important to remember, of course, that the regime currently has around $4 billion in foreign exchange reserves that they got from the gas sales. In kyat terms that’s over 4 trillion kyat. So the idea that they’re giving 5 billion kyat in relief funds is the most extraordinarily ungenerous thing imaginable. Also of course, this is the people’s money; it’s not the generals’ money at all. They’ve accumulated all of Burma’s vast export revenue from the gas, which should belong to the people, so the idea that they’re handing back is an extraordinarily poor thing and it unfortunately summarizes so much of what the regime’s response has been to this cyclone."

"..."

"The Burmese regime is currently earning just over $100 million every single month. If we have a look at the public accounts, what we see is an incredible accounting trick—the regime has logged into the public accounts the gas revenue according to the official exchange rate, which undervalues it by 200 times. Effectively, that means that $3 billion is sitting somewhere. Now where it’s sitting is the interesting question, but what we do know is that it’s sitting somewhere where Burmese people can’t get access to it."

"So either it’s sitting offshore or it’s sitting in the accounts of the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank or the Central Bank. But it looks like it’s only accessible by Than Shwe and perhaps one or two others; it’s not being used for the benefit of the Burmese people, which of course is critical at the moment. This sort of money can do an enormous amount with regard to the cyclone disaster, but it seems to be deliberately withheld."

"..."

"Well I think we can expect the money to be used in the way they’ve always used foreign exchange—for things like the new capital at Naypyidaw, for the nuclear reactor, if that goes ahead. I’m sure people will remember the 1,000 percent pay increases for senior military personnel and various other wasteful capital projects like that. They are, in a sense, glorifying the regime rather than relieving the suffering, which is certainly the most important way the money could be used at the moment."

In the interview, entitled "A Shattered Rice Bowl," Turnell describes the long-term damage to Burma's principal rice-growing region by the cyclone.

Unless the Burma's generals stop blocking foreign aid and open up their own plentiful coffers, they will cause an additional hundreds of thousands of deaths as well as wrecking Burma's future capacity to grow its own food.

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This article is cross-posted on "Pot of George," the personal blog of Simon Billenness.

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