Myanmar: Myanmar in the Doldrums

2007

Frank Milne

The regime is no doubt taking comfort from the failure of the watered-down United States resolution in the Security Council, although its passage would not have brought about any immediate change in Myanmar. It does however illustrate the limitations of Western pressures for change, so long as Myanmar's neighbours have a greater interest in getting a share of its energy resources. India in particular has been active in developing relations with the regime, not only to counterbalance Chinese influence, but also to nail down a share of gas exports, to secure Myanmar's cooperation against Naga insurgent bases along the border by supplying military equipment, and to develop an alternative outlet for north-east India to the sea, bypassing Bangladesh.

In internal affairs, the outward state of suspended animation continue, with minimal evolution. The National Convention is expected to resume for a final session in May, and according to the Foreign Minister, it is hoped the new constitution will be completed by the end of 2007. Nevertheless there are problems not far below the surface. One is the rise of the so-called 88 Generation of former student activists (not connected with the National League of Democracy) who have recently initiated widespread expressions of peaceful dissent, to which the government's reaction has betrayed some uncertainty. It has been suggested that now the government is installed in its Naypyidaw fastness, it is less concerned about security in Rangoon.

Tensions within the leadership remain. Senior General Than Shwe is evidently determined to remain in power as long as possible and to ensure that General Shwe Mann succeeds him, blocking General Maung Aye from the top position. Than Shwe's visit to Singapore in January for a medical check-up caused speculation that his health may be failing, and brought up the succession question.

The government is seeking more control over the ethnic groups which have concluded ceasefire agreements, and has been applying pressure on the Kachin Independence Organisation, and the United Wa State Army to disarm. Fighting has continued in the Shan State with the SSA, and further south with the Karen National Union, though a breakaway faction of the KNU 7th Brigade negotiated a limited peace agreement with the government which the KNU leadership has denounced.

The economy continues to stumble along, but is buoyed by natural gas exports, which are keenly sought by both India and China, as well as Thailand. The Asian Development Bank expects a growth rate of 2-4 % in 2007 (much lower than the government's optimistic forecasts), but notes an inflation rate of 30%. Recent increases in fuel and fertiliser prices has forced up the price of rice by 40-50 %. The black market rate for the kyat is around 1300 to the US dollar.

Myanmar now has the most serious HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia, which is spreading into border regions in China and India. Government figures showing that it is under control appear to underestimate its extent because of limited monitoring. Chinese health officials are reported to believe that the rate of infection is up to four or five times greater than the official statistics.

The work of international aid agencies and NGOs which might help to alleviate such problems is increasingly hampered by official suspicion of their motives and restrictions on their movement and operations. The Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria left Myanmar in 2005, and Medicins Sans Frontieres withdrew from the Karen and Mon States in March 2006. In November 2005, the ICRC was ordered to close its five field offices; the government claimed that this was only a temporary suspension, and the offices were later allowed to reopen under new rules, but the International Committee for the Red Cross announced that it would be reducing its field office staff.

WATCHPOINT: Can the 88 Generation activists maintain their campaign of peaceful dissent and attract wider support, without provoking a serious government reaction?

 

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