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As Military Spends, Misery Deepens

Subject: As Military Spends, Misery Deepens in Burma (Washington Post Service)

Paris, Thursday, May 27, 1999
As Military Spends, Misery Deepens in Burma

By Kevin Sullivan Washington Post Service
RANGOON - Burma is the largest country in area in Southeast Asia. Its 50
million people are among the poorest in the world, largely because of
chronic government mismanagement. Generals with no training in agriculture
visit farms and tell farmers where, when and how to plant their crops, in a
practice known as ''leaving necessary instructions.''
Inflation is at least 70 percent; the country has virtually no hard currency
reserves. Most of Burma is without power for at least 12 hours a day,
forcing many homes and businesses in Rangoon to use generators. Gasoline is
rationed at three gallons a day per person.

There are virtually no street lights and most traffic signals do not work.
Trucks and buses in the capital are relics; the fleet even includes some

The drinking water is largely unsafe. Most people survive on subsistence
farming, but droughts, floods and the appropriation of food by government
troops have led to an increase in hunger in rural areas.

Foreign products are rare; major companies such as Motorola Inc., PepsiCo
Inc., Heineken NV and others pulled out years ago. Wood pulp is the main
ingredient in the fat cigarettes almost everyone smokes.

At the same time, the government spent millions to restore the Shwedagon
Pagoda, the historic golden temple complex in the heart of Rangoon,
described by Rudyard Kipling as a ''beautiful, winking wonder.'' The
renovation took more than a ton of new gold plating, and poor villagers were
asked to donate gold and jewels to adorn the gilded spires.

Much of the income of Burma is believed to derive from the most prolific
heroin-producing region in the world, the so-called Golden Triangle, where
Burma, China, Thailand and Laos come together. The Burmese government has
long been a willing participant in the trade and remains so, despite its
insistence that it is cracking down on drug lords, U.S. officials said. In
protest, the United States and most Western nations refused to attend an
Interpol drug conference held in February in Rangoon.

Despite the grim economic picture, the government of Burma spends roughly 40
percent of its budget on the military. Since the generals took over in 1988,

the military has doubled to 350,000 troops and is building toward 400,000.

A junta spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Hla Min, told reporters last week that
the arms purchases and force buildup of Burma in the past decade were
necessary to combat ethnic rebel insurgents. ''We have been portrayed as a
very dangerous race of people, but before we purchased all this equipment we
were one of the most poorly equipped countries in the world,'' Lieutenant
Colonel Hla Min said.

But as the military has grown, some hospitals have been closed to new
patients two days a week, and the national university has been closed more
than half the time since the current rulers took over.