Burmese chafing at prospect of further isolation, says CSM report

November 14th, 2007 - 2:19 am ICT by admin  
According to a Christian Science Monitor (CSM) report, many Burmese already feel economically isolated because of the government crackdown.

They claim that valuable traders and visitors from neighboring Asian countries are being scared away.

“We need to know what’s really happening in our country,” said one elderly monk.

“The government is trying to close the mind of the people … but now we need to open our minds,” he added.

The isolation is having a measurable impact on the economy. Burma’s currency, the kyat, plummeted to a black-market rate of 900 to the US dollar last year from 200 in 1997 and is now 1,500.

As one of the junta’s more vociferous critics, Washington maintains a ban on imports from Burma and prohibits Americans from doing business with its military leadership. The European Union plans to extend its range of sanctions and may opt to stop imports of Burmese items such as timber and gemstones.

But such a ban would carry a human cost in such a threadbare economy, says Lars Backstrom, Finland’s ambassador to Burma and neighboring Thailand.

“The generals aren’t suffering, whatever our sanctions are. Should the little man be told to pay the price? I don’t think so,” CSM quoted him, as saying.

A sharp increase in diesel and cooking oil in August brought people into the streets of the commercial capital of Rangoon. These initial protests over fuel costs and transport fares later swelled into huge monk-led marches that were the biggest outpouring of anti-government sentiment in Burma since 1988.

Thai businessmen say the unrest in Burma is already affecting border trade worth more than 100 million Thai baht (3.17 million dollars) per year.

Boat drivers, shop owners, a doctor, and even government officers, who were afraid to discuss politics for fear of being caught in the security dragnet, also speak openly about their economic frustrations since the crackdown. They say that the cost of living is much higher in Kawthaung than in Rangoon.

In the market, shops sell products from Thailand, China, and India, a sign of how dependent Burma is on its neighbours. Among the few local items are Burmese cigars, traditional longyi dresses for men and women, and the thanaka bark that women and children wear on their faces. Any economic sanctions that curtail border trade would likely hurt local sellers and buyers, as well as the country’s nascent tourism industry, which is currently in the doldrums. Without tourists, analysts say many jobs would be lost in hotels, restaurants, and travel agents.

The biggest concern remains the price of gasoline, which doubled in August. Lacking public transport, local residents either walk or ride Thai-made motorbikes, stopping to buy reddish fuel at makeshift stores often manned by pre-teen children. (ANI)

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