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ECONOMY-BURMA: A People Running on Empty

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Aug 24 2007 (IPS) - For over a week, Burmese civilians in and around Rangoon have been forced to make a tough choice – stay at home and starve or go to work and labour on near-empty stomachs.

This choice for people already burdened with other economic woes follows a decision by the country’s military regime to raise the price of fuel by 500 percent without any warning. The cost of the sudden hike was felt immediately on the morning of Aug. 15 when the local buses raised their fares, while some buses stopped running.

Suddenly, Burmese who earn 1,000 kyat (almost one US dollar) or daily labour in Rangoon have to pay close to 800 kyat for a round trip from the suburbs to the downtown area of the country’s former capital and back, leaving only 200 kyat for a meal. Before the oil price hike, the proportions were reversed, with 200 kyat on travel and 800 kyat for food.

‘’People are in shock by this oil price hike. Nearly 80 percent of the daily wage is going for transport and people have been forced to cut back on their food,’’ says Zin Linn, information director of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the democratically-elected government forced into exile by the country’s repressive junta. ‘’Some people have even stopped working. We fear there would be starvation because people have begun to skip meals.’’

The ripple effect of more expensive fuel is being felt in other quarters, too, Zin, who lives in Thailand as a political exile, told IPS. ‘’Small businesses in Rangoon and other towns that depended on diesel to work their machines have been hit. Some have been forced to shut down.’’

And the rage the junta’s action has precipitated across the South-east Asian country has produced rare scenes of direct challenge to a military regime notorious for its brutality in containing the public and silencing its opponents. Since Aug. 19, scores of people in Rangoon and other cities mounted public protests for three days, risking beatings by pro-junta thugs or arrest and jail.

‘’What we have witnessed this week is remarkable. It shows a people who are very angry and daring to come out and express their feelings,’’ says Win Min, a Burmese academic attached to Chiang Mai University, in northern Thailand. ‘’For the first time we had people watching the protests clapping openly to show support. They knew the risks in doing so, because there is always a fear of a military crackdown, of ordinary people being shot on the streets.’’

Even the profile of those who are part of the simmering anger reveals a broader section of Burmese society since some 500 people came last Sunday out against the junta’s economic bombshell. ‘’There have been housewives, older people and younger students among the protesters,’’ Win Min said during an interview. ‘’They were doing so spontaneously. A lot more people are taking a wait-and-see approach before joining.’’

On Friday, however, a planned demonstration in a commercial neighbourhood of Rangoon was called off, fearing a crackdown by the authorities, says Khin Ohmar, a former Burmese university student leader living in exile in northern Thailand. ‘’The situation is very tense. The security has been strengthened.’’

As worrying, she told IPS, is the fate of respected former Burmese university student leaders who were arrested by the authorities on Wednesday for their role in this week’s protests. They include Min Ko Naing, respected for his moral authority and revered like Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace prize winner under prolonged house arrest.

‘’We do not know where they are; where the authorities have taken them,’’ said Khin. ‘’The authorities have been stopping cars and buses and checking the IDs (identity papers) of the people because they are after another student leader who was not arrested.’’

The protests, following the oil price hike, hint at a new political current gaining ground since early this year when Burma witnessed a rare public protest over the rising food prices. In February, some 25 people took to the streets to complain about the prevailing economic burdens, which was the first protest of its kind in over a decade.

At the time, the price of rice, a staple in the country, had risen two-fold from the previous year. And other essential food items such as onions, eggs and cooking oil were also getting beyond the majority’s reach. Inflation, by then, had reached 50-60 percent.

Burma is ranked among the world’s poorest nations, a record that contrasts sharply with the reputation it enjoyed soon after independence in 1948 from British colonisation as a country of abundance, including a leading exporter of rice. Nearly 30 percent of this nation’s children are malnourished and 25 percent of its 47.3 million people live in poverty.

Critics blame successive military regimes for this economic decline, since the generals have run the country following a coup in 1962. Public anger against economic hardships in the 1980s fuelled a pro-democracy uprising in August 1988, where the military regime responded with little mercy, killing hundreds of people who took to the streets to challenge the strongman at the time, Gen. Ne Win. The anti-military rage surged following a decision by the then dictator to demonetise the currency. In 1987, the Ne Win regime replaced the existing kyat notes with new ones of unusual denominations like 15, 45 and 90.

The current junta, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has added to Burma’s economic woes by draining the resources to build a new administrative capital further north of Rangoon. Naypidaw, which means ‘royal city,’ was officially declared open in March 2006 at the annual Armed Forces Day.

‘’This regime has created its own worse nightmare by building a capital that is a drain on the country and cutting itself away from the people,’’ says Debbie Stothard of the regional rights lobby ALTSEAN, which stands for the Alternative ASEAN network on Burma. ‘’The fuel hike had only added to it. The people have really lost hope, and fear that they can become a slave class.’’

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