By Cheong Suk-Wai
Assistant Foreign Editor
The Straits Times
After 45 years of hardship and hunger, the patience of millions of Myanmar's poor snapped in mid-August, when its well-fed junta raised fuel prices by at least 400 per cent and slashed subsidies.
They marched countrywide in protest but, in the end, the junta stamped them out in shoot-to-kill crackdowns and manhunts.
Little wonder, as 12 million of the 54 million people living in Myanmar today have only one meal a day, which consists of the lowest-grade rice with a dash of fish sauce and some greens.
A Myanmar expatriate in her late 20s, who is on a training course here, tell the Straits Times : "This type of rice hardens when it cools and so is difficult to digest. But the people purposely wait for rice to harden before they eat it so it will stay in their stomachs longer."
This, despite the fact that the country still produces a surplus of rice every year, according to The Economist magazine. Indeed, Myanmar was the Rice Bowl of Asean in the 1960s, before the military steered its economy into shambles.
As it is, half a million Myanmar people today depend on the United Nations' World Food Programme to eat at all. Most of them are among the 40.5 million scraping by in rural areas.
One-third of the rural populace still have only dirty water to drink, and one-third of all children under five are malnourished. Amid all this, 20 per cent among them will die before they turn 40, said a 2006 report by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Their fate is compounded by 600,000 new cases of malaria and 100,000 new cases of tuberculosis yearly, according to Unicef.
Few are getting treated, said UNDP, because there are only 30 doctors for every 100,000 Myanmar people.
Such is the lot of the 12 million Myanmar people living well below the poverty line, or on less than US$1 (S$1.50) a day, in a country whose gross domestic product per capita was US$1,800 last year, according to the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Compare that to the lot of its dirt-poor neighbours last year, namely Bangladesh (US$2,300 per capita), Laos (US$2,100) and Cambodia (US$2,700).
That, said Myanmar watchers, is a travesty because this resource-rich country had a GDP of US$85.2 billion last year, according to CIA estimates. But only 10 per cent of its citizenry, including its entire 400,000-strong ruling army, enjoys its spoils, thanks to the junta's ham-fisted, nepotistic and corrupt ways with the economy.
Worst off are Myanmar's ethnic minorities, most of whom live in the highlands along the country's 5,876 km-long perimeter, and those most persecuted by the majority Buddhist Burmans - who control the military - are the mainly Christian Karens and Chins and the Muslim Rohingyas.
Much of the junta's hold on Myanmar is rooted in pride. It was generals who freed the country from colonial rule, and it was generals who replaced ineffective civilian rule in 1962.
The coup's mastermind, Ne Win, then installed his quixotic reform plan, the Burmese Way To Socialism, which had the army taking over big businesses and cutting Myanmar off from the world.
A Myanmar expatriate whose aunt is married to a middle-raning military official in the junta, said: "The military really does not understand what life outside its military compounds is like. Within the compounds, those who are junior clean and cook for you, while you clean and cook for those senior to you.
She added: "The military think people people are nothing because they have been supported by the people so well for so long."
Anyone linked to anyone who has criticised military rule would remain jobless in Myanmar, unless they deigned to be sex workers. Job prospects are further hampered by the fact that half of its population who should be in school are not, according to the UNDP, because only primary school education is free.
Plus, as exiled parliamentarian Sann Aung pointed out: "If you want to go to school, you have to bring along your own table and chair. And if you need to go to hospital, you have to take along your own (cleansing) spirit and bandages." That is because the junta, which has something of an edifice complex, likes splurging on showy structures, but not on staff or equipment.
Worse, noted exiled journalist Zin Linn, the junta spends US$1.10 per citizen on education and 4 cents on health care, compared to US$400 per soldier.
Such preferential treatment is slowly tearing apart Myanmar's already much-fragmented society. A Myanmar expatriate here warns: "If people cannot stand the situation anymore, they will go crazy. Already, they distrust and suspect each other. "I worry that my country will turn into another Rwanda."
By Cheong Suk-Wai