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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

Energy for Thailand, Tragedy for Burma

By Sann Aung

Looming Humanitarian Crisis in Burma

On October 4, 2007, Mr.Gambari, UN Special Envoy to Burma, made a report to the UN Security Council after his trip to Burma wherein he states:-

“It is clear, however, that the demonstrations over the past few weeks are for the most part the expression of deep and widespread discontent about socio-economic conditions in the country. General vulnerability in Myanmar is defined by accelerating impoverishment and the growing inability of the social service structures to address the basic needs of the general population. As an illustration, a UNDP household living conditions assessment in 2004-2005 noted that one-third of Myanmar's people live below the poverty line and that 90 percent of the people were spending less than $300 per year. At the time of the study, UNDP predicted that a 10 percent rise in prices could push another third of the country below the poverty line. Since then, the price of fuel has been increased twice, and significant levels of inflation have driven prices up considerably for basic food items and commodities. The overall poverty level is also indicated by the household budget-share of food consumption, which on average is as high as 69 percent."

According to the reports of UN agencies and other International NGOs in 2006, 75% of people lived below the poverty line, one-third of Burma's children were moderately malnourished (half at the border), only half of the children could join the primary school and only one third could go to secondary school. Prevalence rate of HIV, Malaria, Tuberculosis and Infant Mortality rate, Maternal Mortality rate were one of the highest in Asia and the world. Moreover, SPDC has the largest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world. It is estimated to be 70,000 out of 350000 troops.

Main Expenses of the Military Regime

The United Nations and International NGOs have warned that Burma is an emerging humanitarian crisis. However, the generals have not only refused to address serious socioeconomic issues, they have imposed stricter rules on International NGOs and UN agencies which are providing the much-needed humanitarian assistance.

According to the same sources, in 2004, the regime only spent 22,000, 6000 and 300, 000 US dollars for HIV/AIDs, Filariasis and Tuberculosis programs respectively. Here, it is important to note the prevalence of those diseases in Burma. It is estimated that up to 600,000 people are infected with HIV; up to two million infected with Filariasia; and 40% of the population of more than 50 million with Tuberculosis. Every year, the regime spends $1.10 per citizen on education and 40¢ on healthcare, compared to $400 for each soldier.

Since late 2005, the ICRC has been prevented from visiting prisons and due to the restrictions it has closed down three out of five field offices. Many International NGOs have already withdrawn from Burma as they are unable to operate effectively.

On the other hand, the regime spends generously for stronger control of power and grandiose luxurious programs for itself. In 2005, it bought MIG 29 fighters from Russia worth hundreds of millions of dollars, armored personnel carriers from Ukraine, military hardware from China and India. It built the administrative capitol near Pyinmana which cost billions of dollars. In March 2006, salaries of civil servants, especially army personnel were increased 10 times, aiming to get more loyalty. In 2007 May, military regime signed an agreement to buy a nuclear reactor (estimated cost of half a billion dollar).

Main Sources of Regime's Income

According to the figures issued by CSO (Central Statistics Organisation) of the regime, in 2006, total foreign trade was 8 billion USD and out of which 6.3 billion was with neighbours. Thailand led with 2.7 billion USD. the important fact is that Thailand paid 2.2 billion for purchase of gas. Second biggest trader was China with 1.5 billion USD but import from China was 1.2 billion US dollars which was much higher than export to China worth only 300 million US dollars.

The figures from CSO also mentioned that regime's main exports were led by 2200 million US dollar from gas sale to Thailand and 500 million from timber, mostly to India and China followed by 300 million each from gems and garments, 250 million each from fish and pulses and 160 million from tourism. So, we can say that in terms of trade, Thailand is the main financier of the military regime.

Here, it is very interesting to note that the regime did not allow the people to taste a bit of its fortune. It got at least one billion and two billion US dollars from gas sale to Thailand in 2005 and 2006 respectively. But, in late 2005, it increased the price of gas and petrol nine fold. Ignoring the people's hardships (at the brink of subsistence level) in 2006 August it again increased the price of gas five fold and petrol two fold to high which sparked off the monk's peaceful demonstrations in September. Then they brutally cracked down on the most peaceful and spontaneous demonstration by the noble and prestigious pillar of Burmese society with their lethal weapons and fire power.

In terms of projected investment of 14 billion US dollars up until the end of 2006, mostly in the energy sector, Thailand leads with 7.5 billion US dollars including 6 billions for Salween Dam, followed by Singapore, UK and Malaysia with 1.6 billion, 1.5 billion and 700 million respectively.

Even after the brutal crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations of the monks, India, China, Malaysia and Thailand made agreements or announcements to invest more in Burma. Please note that Thailand is the only Buddhist country among these four. The threat to Buddhism and the slaughter of Buddhist monks has not posed a hindrance to the Thai companies. Buddhist Thais lead the businesses to continue their trade dealings with those whose hands are bloodied by the killing of Buddhist monks.

The people of Burma have been suffering much due to these investments and trade. Impact on the Burmese is threefold:-

* First, trade and investment, especially in logging, mining, gas and dams provide income for the military regime to build up its military and linger on as rulers and dictators. They buy arms with the income. They kill their own people and monks with these arms.

* Second, the regime usually makes sure that the area for concessions and projects are safe from the armed groups by undergoing military offensives. In these offensives, they target not only the armed rebels, but also the civilians (consisting mainly of children and women). These military offensives are accompanied by severe and systematic abuses including forced labor, forced relocation, land confiscations, rapes, tortures, conscription of child soldiers, human trafficking and so on.

* Third, the military orders the people to move to designated areas without providing any assistance to maintain their livelihood. This creates massive influx of refugees to the borders and neighboring countries including Thailand while many seek refuge in the jungles. People are forced to work and earn a living by hook or by crook.

According to Thai Burma Border Consortium and other NGOs, at the end of 2006, it is estimated that of the 600000 to 1 million internally displaced persons, 500000 are on the eastern border and among them 80000 were newly displaced in 2006 of which 100000 were hiding in the jungle.

When Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, there were only 210,000 Burmese refugees throughout the region.

Now, there are estimated refugees of over 700,000 in neighboring countries and about two million migrants in Thailand alone.

After so much suffering and blood shed, the heartfelt request from the Burmese people is that there be no more trade and investment in these sectors of contract farming, timber, gas, gems, mine and dams which mainly contribute to further sufferings and abuses and displacement. This is the time for the international community and Thailand to stop funding the military regime.

We understand that a solution to Burma's problems has to be arrived at by the people of Burma. But it can be accomplished only with assistance from the international community, especially the neighbors including Thailand.

Sann Aung is an exile Member of Parliament from Burma. He is also a cabinet member of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma which was officially formed in Manerplaw near Thai-Burma border on 18 December 1990. He is actively struggling for democratization in Burma against the military junta.

- Asian Tribune -

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