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Burmese News

Since the Burmese  government for the most part prevents good outside journalism about the cyclone or their politics, the most reliable source of information so far (aside from BBC/ITV sneak-in journalism) is Irrawaddy, an expat newspaper with ample coverage of the subject.  I am seriously thinking of donating some money not to some international aid organization but this newspaper itself.  From CNN is an account by Dan Rivers on the difficulty of reporting events. I remember the most striking detail in early reports was that Burma possessed only 7 functioning helicopters in this country. Here’s the wikipedia page on the storm.

The rest of these articles come from  Irrawaddy.

Min Zin on how the Burmese government is commandeering foreign aid and extorting donations from local businessmen.

The source added that Than Shwe believes he has already distributed 5 billion kyat (4.5 million dollars), which he mostly extorted from Burmese businessmen as “donations”, and he also has more than US $30 million from international assistance pledges. He then decided to use his own Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and army to distribute aid.

“What Than Shwe doesn’t understand is that his $4.5 million can only be used for food for 12 days, and all the promised dollars from the world may not come if the international experts are not allowed into the country,” said Win Min, a Burmese analyst in Thailand.

Moreover, Burmese businessmen cannot afford to donate much more cash, and overworked Burmese doctors have run out of resources.

Non-government organizations (NGOs) and international non-government organizations (INGOs) within Burma, who had to sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with the regime to begin their projects, defining the nature of their work and their areas of operation, have now found themselves restricted by those same MOUs.

Since many NGOs do not have projects in the Irrawaddy delta, they are not allowed to do any aid work in the devastated region since they were not authorized to do so in their MOUs.

According to inside sources, NGOs are now trying to work under the UN’s umbrella in order to reach into the delta.

Meanwhile, the military and its thuggish USDA members are intimidating private donors who provide rice and clothing to cyclone victims in the suburban townships of Rangoon. Many donors are reportedly being asked to hand over their relief supplies to local USDA members for them to supervise distribution.

Sean Turnell on how the Burmese government is reaping record oil profits while suffering from inadequate food production:

Most of Burma’s prominent corporations are owned by the military, and the country is judged by Transparency International as the second most corrupt in the world. Burma spends a mere 1.4 per cent of GDP on health and education, less than half that spent by the next poorest country in Asia, and it is the only country in the region whose defence budget is greater than that of health and education combined. In 2008 Burma’s per-capita GDP will amount to only around US $290 per annum. Over 70 percent of this income will be spent on food, by far the highest proportion so devoted in the region.

Another shocking fact from the article:

Rising gas prices as well as increasing output volumes have caused Burma’s gas exports to soar, driving a projected balance of payments surplus for 2007/08 of around $2.4 billion. International reserves, hitherto barely sufficient to cover more than a month or so of imports, will rise to a (relatively) healthy $3.5 billion.  

Burma’s gas earnings should be transforming the country’s prospects—and allowing the fiscal space for the spending on basic infrastructure, health and education the country so desperately needs.

Alas, however, this is not happening, and the foreign exchange revenues Burma is accumulating are currently making next to no impact on the country’s fiscal accounts.

The reason is simple. Burma’s gas earnings are being allocated in the government’s published accounts at the ‘official’ exchange rate of the kyat. This official rate (at around 6 kyat:$1) over-values the currency by around 150–200 times its market value (which is currently about 1,000 kyat:$S1). Such exchange rate duality imposes other costs on Burma’s economy, but critical here is that the use of the official exchange rate to convert the gas earnings into kyat dramatically underplays their true (potential) contribution to state finances.

Recorded at the official rate, Burma’s gas earnings for 2006/07 of $1.25 billion translate into 7.5 billion kyat, or a mere 0.6 per cent of budget receipts. By contrast, if the same US dollar earnings are recorded at the market exchange rate, their contribution of 1,500 billion kyat would more than double total state receipts, and more or less eliminate Burma’s fiscal deficit. 

What could be the motivation for this deliberate withholding of financial wherewithal to the state? No-one but the Chairman of the SPDC, Gen Than Shwe, can know for sure.

The most likely explanation is that, so recorded, Burma’s foreign exchange earnings can be kept ‘quarantined’ from the public accounts, and thereby are available for the portioning out by the regime to itself and its cronies.

Here’s an AP photo depicting the gas lines. Fuel costs $2.50/gallon, with a maximum of 2 gallons a day allowed. (Black market prices are 4x that).


Finally from  Irrawaddy archives, an article by James Rose  about the awkward visit by Sylvester Stallone during a politically sensitive moment  to Burma to promote his new Rambo movie:

The nature of the Burma demonstrations, to date via the world’s media, has been one of peaceful protest. The cry of metta (“loving kindness”) sent out into the Burmese air by the marching monks has become the banner under which the world has tended to view the current situation in Burma.

As such, introducing a snarling, blood-soaked, murderous Rambo into the media landscape and you have a classical case of what is known, in media terms, as a “mixed message”. The combination of two such diametrically opposed approaches to dealing with Burma’s dire circumstances tangles the whole Burma issue and removes some of the pillars of the bridge of clear communication to the world.

“Is Burma about peaceful change or is it about civil war?” once media consumers begin asking such questions, the answer is already more or less unimportant. By now, many tracking Burma via the world’s media coverage have already expressed their confusion and have begun the fatal process of moving on.

Media consumers in advanced economies like their causes simple and clear-cut. Few are inclined to take the time to assess and analyze a given situation. They want clean lines of entry. Confusion is the death-knell for any campaign seeking to gain public attention and support.

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