Saturday, 16 August 2008

THAUNG HTUN: 888 has dark significance in Yangon

Thaung Htun

(ST) - WE could all appreciate the cute symmetry of 08-08-08. But Friday's Olympic opening ceremony was poorly timed. Aug 8, 1988 -- "08-08-88" -- was the date of a brutal crackdown in Myanmar, which killed some 3,000 people, mostly students and monks, and is a deep notch marking Myanmar's descent into hell since the military coup in 1962.
Even as the games chug on, it's worth considering some truly extraordinary numbers.

Let's look first at the economy. Indeed important because it was the devaluation of the kyat that led to the 1988 protests and also because an increase in fuel prices led to the Saffron Revolution demonstrations from September last year.

In most places, economics is important. In Myanmar, it's a matter of life and death. Myanmar has the 10th largest reserves of natural gas in the world. The military government is reported to receive some US$150 million (RM495 million) per month in gas export revenues alone.

These are good numbers, of course. The sort suggesting a thriving, albeit somewhat unbalanced, economy. Yet, these upbeat statistics are mugged by a gang of less than savoury data.
A look at just where that money goes reveals the shadowy truth. Myanmar is, next to Somalia, the world's most corrupt country.

The generals and their cronies may have the world's stickiest fingers.

As the scandals over aid funding in the aftermath of the May cyclone that ravaged the Irrawaddy region tend to confirm, the military generals have no scruples in diverting Myanmar's vast resources' wealth into their own offshore accounts.

These diversions include buying themselves all the latest military toys. Between 1988 and 2006, the generals spent about US$23 million a month directly on military hardware.

Overall, the military spending money on itself accounts for some 40 per cent of total budgetary outlays, among the highest such ratios in the world. Meanwhile, around three per cent of government spending is on education. Ninety per cent of Myanmars live on less than US$1 a day.

Average household incomes are roughly five per cent less than the average cost to feed a family.

Children, as always, suffer most. In Chin state, for example, the rate of underweight children below the age of 5 was 60 per cent. In eastern Myanmar, one in five children dies before the fifth birthday.

Many of these deaths are from malaria, an easily preventable disease. Myanmar has the second-highest child mortality rate in Asia.

Up to 150,000 children die every year, mainly from preventable diseases. If the children make it to a certain age, they are likely to be recruited for the military's deadly games.

There are 70,000 child soldiers in Myanmar, the most of anywhere in the world. Here, the children can spend their formative years fighting the world's longest-running war, in the east of the country.

Should they survive this, they may, as adults, join the hundreds of thousands who flee the country every year to eke out an existence as refugees in neighbouring countries.

In the decade to 2005, the flow of refugees from Myanmar increased 800 per cent. Myanmar is the world's third-biggest source of refugees.

Or, if they chose to stay and their pain at this treatment turns vocal, they may end up among the nearly 2,000 political prisoners in Myanmar. Since last year, there has been a 65 per cent increase in political prisoners in the last year.

The sum of all these numbers is more unrest, more demonstrations, and more struggle to achieve Myanmar's democratic destiny.

Nearly 90 per cent of the population voted for democratic change the last time something like a free poll was held in Myanmar, in 1990. That's a number the military cannot deny. It's a number they fear.

But, while the world can get together to organise a massive show like the Olympics, we cannot find consensus in solving problems like those in Myanmar. Even an Olympic medal, it seems, has two sides.

Dr Thaung Htun is the representative for United Nations Affairs with the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, Myanmar's government-in-exile

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