Friday, January 04, 2008

Burma: Life is fine for Burma's ruling military elite but for the vast majority, daily life is a grinding struggle

Burma's economic situation is dire for some

With a tight grip on the country's abundant natural resources, Burma's ruling military elite appears to have the money it needs to retain power. However, for the vast majority of ordinary Burmese, daily life is a grinding struggle. High inflation, low wages and rampant corruption have pushed millions into poverty. In August, the situation deteriorated still further when the government sharply raised fuel prices, bringing thousands onto the streets in protests -- that government troops crushed in September. But as Rory Byrne and Wido Schlicting report from Rangoon, the economic crisis that led to the protests has not gone away.

Military-ruled Burma has suffered from economic decline for decades.

Critics say mismanagement has crippled the economy, and international economic sanctions against the government have made things worse.

Sann Aung is a cabinet minister with Burma's government in exile, living in Bangkok. "The people are very poor because of the ad hoc policies and also the mismanagement of the military regime,” he says, “And also at the same time there is no rule of law, and also the situation is not conducive to international investment," Aung said.

A bad situation got dramatically worse in August when the military government more than doubled some fuel prices, adding to rapid inflation and forcing millions deeper into poverty.

That sparked anti-government protests, and the military's decision to crush them.

With the high cost of fuel, the price of rice and other staples has doubled.

Debbie Stothard is the co-ordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma. She explains, "When the price of rice doubles overnight you're basically facing a situation where most families don't even have money to feed their children. They cannot afford to even feed their children -- that's how bad it became and that's why people took to the streets."

For many Burmese, making ends meet is difficult. Min Min is a taxi driver in Rangoon.

"In their daily life, they earn a day less than one dollar,” Min says, “So half of their income, they use for transportation to their job, like the bus -- transportation. And the rest they use for the rice, for food. If they get sick or ill they don't have no more money to cure."

Years of neglect have crippled Burma's healthcare system. Modern medicines, if available at all, are often fake, or out of date.

Many people rely on traditional cures, made from plants and roots. Burma's life expectancy is one of the lowest in the world -- averaging less than 60 years.

In these difficult times, people sell whatever possessions they have to make ends meet.

Everything is repaired countless times -- nothing is wasted.

Many children are forced to work full-time jobs, seven days a week, earning less than a dollar a day.

Almost everyone here will say that things need to change, and quickly. Min adds, "You know we don't understand, we don't know what is politics but under this economic crisis we cannot stand for it no more longer."

With no end in sight to Burma's economic crisis, the tensions that led the anti-government protests in September have not gone away. With little progress in talks between the government and the political opposition, many people here are convinced that more protests are inevitable.

By Rory Byrne and Wido Schlicting Rangoon
Published with the permission of
Voice of America