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Myanmar: From prosperity to poverty under junta

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When it comes to Burma, Union of Myanmar, the first image which comes to our mind is of the indefatigable pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been languishing under house arrest for the past 12 years. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in 1990 in Burma's first multi-party elections for 30 years, but has never been allowed to govern.

The culprit is repressive military junta of Myanmar which has earned itself a tag of one of the suppressive and defiant regimes in the world.

Myanmar, an underdeveloped agrarian country, is ruled by an authoritarian military regime which suppresses all expression of opposition to its rule. The military junta has dominated government since General Ne Win, in a coup in 1962 toppled the civilian government of U Nu. With the arrival of military junta in once prosperous Burma in 1962, the country has been on a journey of decline and was put by the United Nations in the category of the 'least developed country' in 1987.

The junta is headed by Senior General Than Shwe, 74, who holds the posts of "Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council" and "Commander in Chief of the Defence Services" as well as the Minister of Defence.

The top military rank is accused of gross human rights violations which includes forcible relocation of civilians and the widespread use of forced labour. There have been numerous domestic and international protests against this authoritarian regime but not even a single protest could shake the government.

While majority of the world is up in arms against dictatorial regimes all across the globe, Myanmar's military junta remains undeterred despite mounting international pressure and sanctions. The reason behind military junta's continuance in power is support by many countries for its strategic position and huge reservoirs of natural resources.

China and Burma have been close allies since the days of Mao. China's substantial economic, military and political support is vital in view of the sanctions imposed by the west and the mounting pressure exerted by the regional and international forums. China has an economic interest with a view to extract the natural resources particularly oil and gas for the development of its western provinces, especially Yunnan and Sichuan. The hidden motive behind China's support is to secure a corridor to the Indian Ocean from South China via Myanmar. China has baled out Myanmar through a veto every time the UN tried to pass a resolution against this nation for violation of human rights and want of political reforms.

If India has not been too critical of the junta rule in Myanmar or the long detention of Aung Suu Kyi or human rights violations, there is a reason too - the possibility of exploring avenues in gas-rich Myanmar. India does not want to meddle in the affairs of Myanmar as the country could tilt entirely towards China which is an arch rival of India.

Myanmar which has common boundaries with both China in the east and India in the west is crucial to these major Asian nations in pursuance of their strategic, security, military and economic interests. Myanmar is exploiting this situation and is pitting one against the other for deriving maximum benefit from both.

The discovery of oil and gas changed the way regional and global powers looked at or dealt with Myanmar. It is true that since the energy rush, the western and regional powers have not been criticizing Myanmar for its human rights record.

Apart from China and India, Thailand is also supportive of the military junta within ASEAN and has been insisting on constructive engagement. It is worth mentioning that much of the drugs from Myanmar flow to the other countries through Thailand.

Activists argue that French oil interests also fuel oppression of pro-democracy activists by co-operating with the junta in a joint venture to exploit gas. They allege that France has been blocking tough European Union sanctions against the military ruled Myanmar.

A largely rural, densely forested country, Myanmar is the world's largest exporter of teak and a principal source of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires. It is endowed with extremely fertile soil and has important offshore oil and gas deposits. However, its people remain very poor and are getting poorer.

No matter how worse and tough economic sanction this country faces, European banks continue to support the junta by dolling out economic credit lines. Ironically, the sanctions have made the common man poorer but have not hurt the military rulers.

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Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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