Sunday, 27 July 2008

UN's Currency Transactions with Myanmar Regime Questioned, UNDP's Two Week Stonewall, Press Closed Out

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, July 9 -- While the UN is now full of praise of Myanmar, it has emerged that UN agencies have been exchanging currency at artificially low rates with the Than Shwe government. Sources told Inner City Press that the UN Development Program, for one, was quietly allowing the Myanmar military regime to profit from each exchange made for local currency to distribute to Cyclone Nargis victims.

Two weeks ago, Inner City Press asked UNDP about what currency exchange rates it has been accepting in Myanmar. The agency's new spokesman committed to provide an answer. After 12 days without information, the question was reiterated, and also posed to UNICEF, which usually provides more timely answers. Inner City Press also asked the UN's Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes about what exchange rates are being accepted. "I'll find out," Holmes has answered. Video here, from Minute 4:34. While admitting he didn't know, he said there are no "dodgy deals" in currency exchange in Myanmar. Video here, from Minute 4:34.

Holmes may well be wrong. Inner City Press' sources tell it that the military government is in fact profiting from post-Cyclone aid, including through the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, in which both UN and aid agencies, as well as expatriate Burmese who send remittances to their families, must have accounts. The exchange rate this government-controlled bank gives is lower that the actual, free-market rate; the government pockets the difference.

Even pending John Holmes' answer, some humanitarians have argued that it is worth it to allow the Than Shwe government to steal some percentage of aid, in order to reach needy people. But what percentage is acceptable? And if the UN never discloses it, how and by whom is the decision being made? Watch this site.

Also on Myanmar, while the UN Spokesperson was dismissive of Inner City Press' questioning of whether the Than Shwe government had ordered the UN to stop giving its Nargis relief press conference in Bangkok, and limit them to the friendly confines of Yangon, when Inner City Press put the same question to John Holmes later on Wednesday, he acknowledged that he is aware that the Myanmar government would rather the briefings be held in Yangon. Video here, from Minute 9:33.

When Inner City Press asked him what safeguards are in place that independent media can access the briefings in Yangon, Holmes quipped that he briefs in New York and "you are here." But that's not the point. Is the UN giving in to the Than Shwe government's attempts to control not only currency exchange, but also information exchange?

Update of July 10 -- UNICEF points to this letter to the editor...

Holmes gives another briefing on Thursday, at which he is expected to have answers at least on the currency questions. Watch this site. And this --

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