Improved Burma for all

30 November 2008

During my recent trip to Burma, a business acquaintance of mine, a foreigner, who has spent the last five years in Burma, commented that the living standard in Burma is improving and Burma is opening up with the booming of five-star hotels, resorts, and restaurants etc. Right after her remark, our car passed by two frail-looking elderly begging on the platform. When we stopped at a traffic light, a couple of boys; young enough to be attending a primary school, appeared besides our car's window hoping to sell some Burmese journals to us.

I turned to look at my acquaintance and said, "I think Burma seems to be improving only for a handful of elites".

Indeed, Burma has improved. Whenever I go back, I see more buildings, more hotels, and more restaurants springing up and with them, came the rising prices as well. One bowl of mont-hin-gar (favourite breakfast dish for Burmese) at an above-average eatery can cost almost 1,000 Kyat and a book by a well-known Burmese author can go up to 3,000 Kyat, etc. With most of the items in the price range of thousands and with the average salary of 40,000 - 50,000 Kyat for a fresh IT graduate at a private company, the locals struggle to survive in Burma. Most of them try to find jobs in foreign companies or NGOs which pay them in US dollars; deemed to be better pay than local terms and better value than local currencies. Such jobs become highly sought after.

The number of expatriates also seems to have grown in Burma. All the hotels and restaurants are mainly filled with foreigners. There is a boom of various types of businesses such as restaurant, spas, saloons, pubs etc, to cater to such circle of people. Having gone there on expatriates' packages, life in Burma seems rather lavish for them; a great distinction from the locals in the country.

Being one of those Burmese, considered to be fortunate enough to have been able to move to another country in search of a greener pasture, I find myself being among the group of people with above-average spending-power whenever I return to my home country for a visit. With the declining value of Burmese currency in the black market, constantly rising prices in Burma fail to cause a big hole in our pockets.

In contrast, with the natural disaster like Nargis, and ruthless junta who only act in their own interest, the lives of my countrymen in Burma seem to have been dragged further down into the poverty. The world is facing a financial crisis and turmoil in various places like Thailand, and Mumbai etc. Amidst all these chaos, Burma may be forgotten once again by the international community. Burma may become once again just a tourist destination, an exotic country with splendid scenery to look forward to.

As we curl ourselves up in our happy cocoons, we sometimes fail to reach out of our comfort-zone. Though I still continue with my necessary expenditures in Burma whenever I go back there, my heart always remains aware of the fact that a large percentage of my people are suffering. I feel that it is of paramount importance for foreigners in Burma; be it expatriates or tourists, to be at least mindful and empathetic of the conditions of the local people.

As my people try hard to remain afloat under dire conditions in life, I can feel their spirits waning. The blood of those who have sacrificed remains dried on the streets of Burma. The souls of those who have sacrificed seem to be forgotten.

Another Christmas is coming. Another year is ending. How many more Christmas will there be before Burma improves for people from all walks of life and not only for the handful of elites?


Myanmar-Bangladesh Energy Crisis

08 November 2008

[News Source: AFP,6Nov, 2008]

Dhaka, (AFP)-A simmering dispute between Bangladesh and neighbouring Myanmar in a hydrocarbon-rich stretch of the Bay of Bengal has highlighted Dhaka's desperate plight over dwindling gas supplies, say analysts.

Bangladesh this week took the unusual step of deploying four naval ships to the disputed waters -- claimed by each nation as their own -- after its southeastern neighbour began gas exploration activities there.

Dhaka says it will take "all possible measures" to protect the zone, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Bangladesh's Saint Martin Island.

The military-backed interim government has meanwhile sought to resolve the dispute diplomatically, dispatching its foreign secretary to Myanmar to hold crisis talks.

A senior official from Myanmar's military government said they were open to discussions, but insisted that oil and gas companies were operating inside their territory and far away from the disputed sea boundary.

Myanmar also insisted that the United States was involved and stirring up trouble -- an accusation denied by Washington.

Regardless of what sparked the face-off, experts say Bangladesh has taken an unusually strong stance, especially towards a country it has generally enjoyed friendly relations with.

"There's a chance we might find gas in the Bay of Bengal. India and Myanmar have already discovered gas there so it's crucial for Bangladesh to assert its territory. A lot is at stake," said energy expert Nurul Islam, from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

Bangladesh has been facing an acute shortage of gas in recent months with demand outstripping supply by 15 percent thanks to its booming manufacturing sector.

The government has told hundreds of factories they will have to wait until 2011 for new supplies, as years of neglect over exploration have fast depleted gas reserves.

To overcome the crunch, the emergency government earlier this year divided its sea territory into 28 blocks and invited bids from international oil companies for exploration contracts.

Myanmar protested the move, although Bangladeshi officials have said they refrained from awarding contracts for blocks lying in disputed waters.

Security expert Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University said Bangladesh's actions this week were aimed at deterring foreign companies who had been awarded contracts by Myanmar to search for gas in the region.

"The government is trying to send a signal to foreign oil companies and the international community that it would take any drillings in the disputed blocks very seriously," Ahmed said.

"Under international laws, Myanmar cannot drill in disputed waters, which have not been demarcated yet."

Ahmed said all seismic surveys showed huge gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal, which would ensure Bangladesh's energy security for decades.

"It's a matter of our future. We may not be rich now but our economy is growing fast. Soon enough we'll have the capacity to drill in deep sea waters," he said.