News / Asia

Burma’s Path to Privatization Keeps Armed Forces in Economic Control

A woman sells produce at a vegetable wholesale market in Yangon (file photo – 25 Apr 2010)
A woman sells produce at a vegetable wholesale market in Yangon (file photo – 25 Apr 2010)

Multimedia

Audio
TEXT SIZE - +
Ron Corben

Burma’s military is pressing on with the privatization of state assets as part of economic reforms. Many critics say the program simply transfers assets to the military government’s allies and maintains its economic control.

Burma’s is one of Asia’s poorest countries, and the military government dominates the economy.

But the government is moving forward with economic reforms, including the sale of up to 90 percent of state assets.

While details are sketchy, media reports in Rangoon say more than 400 state-owned assets, including airports, buildings, gasoline stations and land close to the main port have been sold.

Douglas Clayton, managing director of the investment fund Leopard Capital, based in Cambodia, says privatization is a step toward greater efficiency.

"Putting an economy into private assets is likely to lead to a better-managed economy,” Clayton said. “It’s a step toward modernizing Burma and no matter how it is done the outcome is likely to be no worse than it is now and possibly much better. There will be many beneficiaries of a liberalized economy, so there will be more impetus for further reform."

But some Burma experts say privatization is part of the military’s effort to maintain its hold on power. They say most of the assets have gone to business people tied to the military, in an effort to build support before last year’s elections.

Parties close to the military won about 80 percent of the elected seats in November’s elections, the first in 20 years. The constitution additionally sets aside 25 percent of the total seats for the military. The parliament opens next week.

"That whole fire sale of assets that they had prior to the election was to shore up support of some of the big entrepreneurs,” says Alison Vicary, an economist from Australia’s Macquarie University. “The airport, for example, was given to those entrepreneurs that have been aligned with the regime for years. So obviously the regime has some idea that these guys need to be kept onside. How to manage that into the future is another issue."

Some Burma experts note that the buyers of state assets include military-run corporations such as Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, which controls the army’s pension fund, and the Myanmar Economic Corporation, which oversees funds from the sale of state-owned enterprises.

"The wave of privatization that has taken place – has been a move to transform public assets into personal property of the military regime and their cronies including the leaders of the Union Solidarity and Development Party which is the biggest party backing the regime," said Debbie Stothardt, the spokeswoman for rights group Alternative ASEAN Network.

Bertil Lintner, an author and commentator on Burma, agrees the sell-off leaves much of the economy under military control. But he says it may open the way for private investment.

"People will say look at all these new opportunities here,” said Lintner. “Privately owned companies and organizations – a restructured economy and so on; but also the economy is so bad that they have to do something."

Peter Gallo, who is with the anti-money laundering consulting firm Pacific Risk in Hong, warns that foreign investors must proceed carefully in Burma, despite the privatization. The United States, the European Union and other governments have imposed economic sanctions against the government to push for political reform.

"The big practical issues really are the rule of law and human rights situation,” Gallo said. “You can have any kind of government you like; doesn’t matter whether it’s allegedly democratically elected or not but if there is flagrant abuse of human rights in the country and that is well known – the international condemnation is going to continue."

Several large Burmese corporations, such as the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, are on the U.S. sanctions blacklist.

Rights activist Stothardt says the reforms do little to improve life for most Burmese.

"Most people in Burma lack access to clean water basic electricity, to basic health and education,” Stothardt said. “So this whole move to privatize all the assets of the country is mainly to turn public assets into the personal property of military leaders and their cronies, and it’s still not going to improve the situation for the ordinary Burmese person."

Burmese officials and some regional political analysts say that Western sanctions are responsible for the country’s poverty. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member, wants the sanctions lifted.

ASEAN leaders say the elections and the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from detention show Burma is making progress on political reforms. As a result, ASEAN says, the sanctions should go.

But rights groups say the changes fall far short for true reform, especially since Burma’s military holds more than 2,000 political prisoners and maintains a tight grip on the economy.

You May Like

Photogallery Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians More

Abdullah Holds Lead in Afghan Presidential Election

Country's Election Commission says that with half of the ballots counted, former FM remains in the lead with 44 percent of the vote More

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid