Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis
UNITED NATIONS, July 10 -- As the UN appealed for $300 million more for post-cyclone Myanmar, questions grew about the UN's conversion of money to kyat, the local currency, through government-issued Foreign Exchange Certificates at the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank. Sources have told Inner City Press that the Than Shwe government is benefiting from the exchange rates.
On Thursday Inner City Press asked the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for Myanmar, Dan Baker, who responded that he does not think the conversion to kyat benefits the government. But what about the first step in the process, the conversion to Foreign Exchange Certificates? That "fluctuates," Baker replied. Video here, near end. Local estimates say that the fluctuations, particular since the cyclone and the UN's appeal, have benefited the military government.
While Baker and the UN's top humanitarian, John Holmes, both effusively praised Myanmar on Thursday, their own Situation Report of July 7 states, under the heading "Emergency Tele Communications," that "Equipment is still held in customs, restriction on official imports of telecommunications equipment remains, and use of telecommunications equipment in Delta region is still prohibited." Called on with only three minutes remaining in their press conference, Inner City Press asked Baker and Holmes about each of these.
Baker confirmed that these are the restrictions, but noted that the UN has tried to raise them to the government. But why no mention of the restrictions until they arose at the end of a press conference?
Earlier on Thursday, when Holmes launched the revised appeal, various countries spoke. Thailand emphasized that humanitarian aid should not be politicized. The U.S. spoke about its C-130 cargo flights which ended on June 22. The UK chimes in that it is contributing a further $90 million. (The U.S. has given $47). And then the representative of France spoke, saying
"My country and the international community in general is gravely preoccupied by the situation in Burma... Let me remind our partners that the Security Council is dealing with the situation on the political side, independent of the mission of Mr. Gambari."
Various Ambassadors scoffed, one told Inner City Press that France was just grandstanding. Afterwards, a Permanent Five member of the Security Council told Inner City Press that France has "embarrassed John Holmes." Inner City Press asked Holmes to respond to this; he said that France
"was trying to make a political point. They want to pursue the political agenda. But... that's why Ibrahim Gambari is preparing to go back there. I didn't feel embarrassed by it. It just wasn't particularly relevant to what we were saying."
An irony is that those who pushed so loudly to get their own humanitarians into Myanmar have not pushed at all to make sure that through currency exchange aid meant for victims of the cyclone is not siphoned off to benefit the military government. One diplomat remarked to Inner City Press, France just wanted to "film its MSF and ACF workers there in Myanmar."
Inner City Press asked Dan Baker if the UN is doing anything to help the Karen people, including IDPs fleeing military action in the east of the country. "We have actually less access to that region," Baker said, mentioning a trust fund set up to help on the issue. But how is the money in the trust fund converted to local currency? Two weeks after Inner City Press asked UNDP the question, the following arrived on July 10:
"UNDP Funds are remitted into the UNDP US dollar account at Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank. UNDP Myanmar exchanges US dollars for Foreign Exchange Certificates at the Bank, and then converts these into local currency (Kyat). The exchange rate is based on the prevailing [most competitive] rate in the market, which can fluctuate."
We will have more on these "fluctuations." For now we note this response to the question of whether the UN and UNICEF have been pressured by the Myanmar government to hold their press conferences about the cyclone only in Yangon.
Footnote: Ibrahim Gambari, whose mission on Myanmar was mentioned by both France and the UN's Holmes, is reported to have resigned his recent role in the Niger Delta conflict. While it has been explained that he took a leave of absence from the UN for that work, Inner City Press on Thursday asked the UN spokesperson if she could confirm or deny that Gambari resigned his role. It is in her personal capacity, she said. But would he tell the UN if he quit his Nigeria role? Of course, she said. Has he told the UN that? Not that I know of, she said. Watch this site. And this --