Daily News- July 05- 2002- Friday

  • Myanmar's money-changers play a dangerous game as economy crumbles
  • Thailand to Use ASEAN forum to Hold Talks with Myanmar
  • No plan to nab Shan leader, says Surayud
  • Burma's history points the way
  • Thailand to crack down on revolutionary, dissident groups
  • Myanmar, Australia sign MOU on HIV/ AIDS project

  • Myanmar's money-changers play a dangerous game as economy crumbles

    YANGON, July 3 (AFP) - Myanmar police swooped down on old Bogyoke Market in the morning, and by the time the dust had settled three money-changers had been hauled off to jail and the sole licensed foreign exchange shop was shuttered.

    "We are not sure what has happened to them," said Moe, a jade seller who like many of Yangon's merchants, dabbles in illicit exchange of the national currency, the kyat."They were selling the kyat too high to the dollar, so the government stopped them," he said, his eyes darting nervously about."They could be back at their stalls tomorrow, or they could be jailed for four months."

    Yangon's currency black-marketeers engage in a dangerous, shadowy dance in a city rocked this year by a coup attempt, skyrocketing inflation, highly questionable fiscal policies, and the dismal state of the economy.Myanmar's rigid military regime tolerates the trade to a point.

    But it rounds up money changers without warning, as in April when the kyat crashed to an all-time low of 1,004 to the dollar on news that former dictator Ne Win's son-in-law and grandsons had been arrested for plotting a coup.

    The rate worsened with the junta's introduction in March of a ban on foreign-owned trading firms holding import- export licenses.The rate recovered slightly, particularly after the May release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

    But it recently dived again to 900 kyat, and as vital trade routes with neighbouring Thailand were shut tight due to a simmering border row, observers said there are fears it could drop further, raising prices of basic goods and hurting an already impoverished people.

    "The people live very much on the edge" in Yangon, said one diplomat who like most here spoke only on condition of anonymity."There is inflation, and people don't have any reserves left."

    Myanmar, formerly Burma, has suffered under decades of failed socialist policies, government control of the economy, and crippling sanctions that followed the bloody repression of 1988 pro-democracy protests and 1990 elections the junta refused to recognise.

    The economy has been propped up to a large degree by cash from the illegal trade in opium and methamphetamines which some observers say constitutes 20 percent of all business in the country.

    A currency crisis is leading to increased privation, as prices of rice, meat and medicine continue to shoot up.

    "Devaluation of the kyat is putting the squeeze on income and living standards, and ultimately how many meals a day some people will be eating," the diplomat said.

    The price of mohinga, the beef noodle soup considered Myanmar's national dish, has risen 50 percent since April, to about 75 kyat.In an effort to curb inflation, the regime has nationalised distribution of key products such as gasoline. A gallon sells officially for 200 kyat, but the black-market price most residents pay tops 900.

    "The government's ability to keep this sort of thing under control is just not effective," the second diplomat said.

    The junta continues to tout upbeat figures. Last week it said the economy grew at 10.5 percent in the 2001 fiscal year ending in March, the Myanmar Times reported.Despite government assurances the military state is on a growth track, the economy remains mired in crisis.

    Inefficient state-owned firms, the legacy of the "Burmese way to socialism", are hemorrhaging money, diplomats say, while controls on free enterprise are "enormous".

    Foreign exchange reserves are estimated at just 200-300 million dollars, equivalent to a few months of imports.

    To the irritation of visitors and money changers, the junta continues to demand that tourists entering the country exchange 200 dollars into Foreign Exchange Certificates, which are pegged at a dollar each but bring under 90 percent of a greenback's value on the black market.

    "Over the long term, prospects for growth and for lasting poverty reduction remain uncertain in a context where macroeconomic and structural distortions are acute," the Asian Development Bank said in its 2002 outlook.

    Myanmar's 50 million people are surviving on less than a dollar a day, according to the US State Department, but wages in the countryside are as low as 100 kyat (11 cents) per day.

    In Yangon, home to five million people, citizens like Moe the jade seller worry the junta will continue its crackdowns on money changers in a failing bid to stem the kyat's slide."It's a very sad state of affairs," said one Yangon-based businessman.

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    Thailand to Use ASEAN forum to Hold Talks with Myanmar

    BANGKOK, July 4 (Xinhuanet) -- Thailand will use the upcoming meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers to hold talks with Myanmar on border problems, Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said Thursday.

    Surakiart said that he would hold talks with his Myanmar counterpart on the sideline of the upcoming foreign ministers' meeting of ASEAN member countries in Brunei to try to address pending border problems, according to a report of the Thai News Agency.

    Asked about news reports that Myanmar would re-open its border checkpoints on July 20, Surakiart said he could not confirm the reports, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had yet been contactedby Yangon over the issue. There had been no diplomatic negotiations by the Thai and Myanmar governments over the issue as well, he noted.

    Myanmar has closed its checkpoints along the Thai-Myanmar border, from the northern province of Chiang Rai to the southern province of Ranong since May. The move followed cross-border shelling and allegations that Thailand supported armed ethnic forces fighting against Myanmar government troops along the border.

    Surakiart said, however, that the re-opening of border checkpoints by Myanmar was not actually considered the key point to be able to clear all pending border problems.The pending problems were, instead, caused by other reasons, the foreign minister indicated, without further elaboration.

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    No plan to nab Shan leader, says Surayud

    The Bangkokpost
    Wassana Nanuam

    Army chief Gen Surayud Chulanont yesterday assured Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that the army always did what it was told.His assurances came at a meeting of the National Security Council attended by Mr Thaksin, Defence Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and the armed forces leaders.

    The army's policies were to never interfere in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries, protect the country's sovereignty and never allow foreign troops to operate on Thai soil.``I've told the meeting the army has never breached the policies and the misunderstanding is caused by communications problems,'' he said.

    A source said that Gen Surayud also denied Burma's allegations that Thailand provided support to the Shan State Army and crossed the border to attack Wa and Burmese troops.``The army chief has denied every allegation made by Burma. No mortar shells have been fired, only warning shots when stray shells land on the Thai side,'' said the source.

    Gen Surayud also denied that an order had been issued for the arrest of Col Yawd Serk, the Shan State Army leader, saying the army was told to step up surveillance only.``The army has been told to keep a close watch on the situation to make sure there is no room for misunderstanding,'' he said.

    Lt Gen Lertrat Rattanawanich, assistant army chief of staff, said the defence minister made no such order and instructed the army to monitor the movements of ethnic rebels.Earlier, Gen Chavalit said he had told authorities to arrest any leaders of anti- Rangoon minority groups, especially the Shan State Army, found in the country.

    Supreme Commander Adm Narong Yutthawong said yesterday an SSA radio station did exist but it was not run on Thai soil.``We know its location but we won't give that information. But I can assure it is not on Thai soil,'' Adm Narong said.The supreme commander said a misunderstanding about the SSA radio being run from Thailand was possible because the Supreme Command's radio stations in the North were broadcast in Shan language.

    ``There are ethnic minority groups in the North and we want to reach them. But the programmes are not propaganda against our neighbour.``It's our right to broadcast programmes in the languages of ethnic minority groups. The contents are harmless,'' he said.

    Burma's history points the way

    The Bangkokpost
    Bhanravee Tansubhapol

    The government should encourage people to learn Burma's history if it wants to prevent breakdowns in relations, a historian says.Sunait Chutintaranond, an Chulalongkorn University historian who specialises in Burma, said problems with that country stemmed from a lack of interest in Burmese history.

    The government was not prepared to cope with charges against a former Thai monarch levelled by Burmese writer Ma Tin Win in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

    ``If we had good management, we would not be cornered as we are at present,'' he told a seminar on Burmese history.

    Lack of knowledge about Burma had affected the way police handled the October 1999 incident in which Burmese exiles seized the Burmese embassy in Bangkok, the storming of the hospital in Ratchaburi the following January, as well as problems of refugees and drugs, he said.

    The government should build relations with Burma gradually, rather than pinning all its hopes on one person, as it had done with Gen Maung Aye, the vice-chairman of the State Peace and Development Council.``Unexpected trouble could arise when we treat any one leader differently,'' he said.

    The government had acted with too much haste, Mr Sunait said. Burma had been in no state to make war with its neighbours since it was defeated by the British in 1824-26.Thailand, which lost the former capital of Ayutthaya to Burma in 1767, had used history notably episodes involving King Naresuan the Great, King Narai and King Chulalongkorn to build national unity, he said.``This is a weak point which Burma knows well and uses to provoke anger,'' said Mr Sunait.

    While the government had tried to get Thais to consider Burma as an ``imaginary enemy'', the private sector has reaped commercial gains, portraying the conflict in films and advertisements.Burma was proud of its natural resources and history, and had drawn on history to build national pride. Burma had long been unhappy with Thailand, and still believed authorities were supporting its minority groups, he said.

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    Thailand to crack down on revolutionary, dissident groups

    BANGKOK, July 4 (AFP) - Thailand vowed Thursday to clamp down on dissident groups, including refugee Myanmar students, intent on using its territory as a springboard to carry out attacks on neighbouring nations.

    National Security Council (NSC) secretary general Khachadpai Burussapat said the kingdom would "build confidence among our neighbours" by tightening its longstanding policy against insurgent or anti-government groups using Thailand as a base of operations.

    "We will take strict measures against any groups using Thailand to attack their countries," he told reporters after a special NSC session ordered by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

    Thaksin convened the council after a months-long spate of violence that has rocked Thailand's five Muslim- majority southern provinces, where a separatist movement has been active for decades.The meeting also came in the wake of a border row with Myanmar that has brought perenially shaky relations to crisis levels.NSC officials warned the policy applied to dissident Myanmar student groups who oppose the ruling military junta in Yangon.

    "We will not allow any group to meet or protest here to attack their countries," said one official who asked not to be named.

    It was not immediately clear what would happen to well-established groups based in Thailand, particularly Myanmar student organizations which sought sanctuary here after escaping a brutal crackdown by Yangon security forces during pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988.

    NSC members did not comment on the situation in the restive south, where 12 police officers and a teacher have been killed and a number of arms depots raided since March.Earlier this week, a weapons haul was seized on the southern Thai resort island of Phuket which authorities say may have been bound for Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or for rebels in the Indonesian province of Aceh.Thailand has experience in dealing with rebel groups gathering in the kingdom.Anti-Jakarta East Timorese activists have been barred in recent years, and anti-communist Laotian rebels have met resistance from the Thai government after slipping across the border.After a group of exiled students seized Yangon's embassy in Bangkok in 2000, the Thai government banned political protests outside Myanmar's mission here.

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    Myanmar, Australia sign MOU on HIV/ AIDS project

    YANGON, Jul 5, 2002 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- Myanmar and Australia reached a memorandum of understanding here Friday on initiating a project to reduce the HIV-related harm associated with injecting drug use in Myanmar and strengthening the country's fight against HIV/AIDS.Representing respective countries, the joint secretary of the Myanmar Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control Police, Colonel Hkam Aung, and Australian Ambassador Trevor Wilson signed the document.

    The Australian- funded initiative is part of a regional project which will begin at national level in Myanmar and Vietnam, countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and at provincial level in southern China covering Yunnan Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

    The project will extend for a period of four years. The total cost for the regional project will be 8.8 million Australian dollars (about 4.5 million US dollars).The project is consistent with the Joint UN Plan for HIV/AIDS for Myanmar.

    Meanwhile, Myanmar is cooperating with the UN Children's Fund ( UNICEF) in implementing HIV/AIDS projects in the country, covering disease awareness and prevention activities.

    HIV/AIDS is recognized as one of the three priority communicable diseases in Myanmar. The other two are malaria and tuberculosis.According to the World Health Organization, 3,817 AIDS cases were reported and 510,000 HIV infections estimated in Myanmar by the end of 2000, with 760 cases per 100,000 people.

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