Generals amass fortunes while Myanmar flounders

A sprawling new capital dubbed the “Abode of Kings”, lavish weddings for family members, palatial villas - Myanmar’s ruling generals appear to have few qualms about spending money. But as the death toll from the catastrophic cyclone mounts and up to two million people wait for food, water and medicine, precious little of their resources have been devoted to the relief effort.

“The [top generals] are very rich, filthy rich. This is a military dictatorship. When you are in a position of power within the military, you can enrich yourself easily,” said Thailand-based Myanmar analyst Aung Naing Oo. “They have a monopoly on a lot of things like the timber contracts, the rice, you name it - anything they can sell overseas.”

Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar’s economy with Australia’s Macquarie University, estimates that the top generals have about four billion dollars in foreign exchange reserves.

In late 2006 a video of the wedding of junta chief Senior General Than Shwe’s daughter emerged on the Internet, revealing the gaping chasm between Myanmar’s haves and have-nots. In scenes that scandalised citizens who managed to view it, Thandar Shwe was shown draped in pearls, diamonds and other gems, while her groom splashed champagne across rows of glasses. The Myanmar news magazine Irrawaddy, which is published in Thailand, estimated the value of the wedding gifts at more than $50 million.

After more than 45 years of isolation and military rule, Myanmar itself is officially one of the world’s poorest countries, with per capita gross domestic product (GDP) well below that of nearby Cambodia, Laos and Bangladesh.

The world has pledged nearly $100 million in relief, but the junta is holding up emergency food at the airport, stalling on issuing visas for foreign experts, and insisting on distributing all aid itself.

[Excerpt of an article by Charlie McDonald-Gibson, The News (Pakistan)]

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