Telling Article about Burma from NYT
Warped Myanmar/BURMA Economy Slows Aid
YANGON, Myanmar — An S.U.V. for $250,000 and a cellular phone for $3,000. As foreign aid workers test Myanmar’s commitment to allow them to operate inside the country as part of the relief effort for Cyclone Nargis they face not only administrative hurdles erected by a xenophobic military government but an economy warped by years of misrule.
Myanmar’s military limits the sale of mobile phones, bans satellite phones, sharply restricts car imports and rations gasoline to one or two gallons a day. The main beneficiaries of this system are government employees and military officers, who profit by selling permits, gasoline and many other items on the black market.
Aid workers from the United Nations and private relief agencies continued Wednesday to travel into the Irrawaddy Delta, the area hardest hit by the May 3 cyclone, following an agreement reached last week with the Myanmar government.
Richard Horsey, the spokesman for the United Nations relief effort, said the military was requiring aid workers to give 48 hours’ notice before traveling into the delta but that he was hearing only positive news about their access.
“I’m not aware of any rejections or people not able to go where they wanted to go,” Mr. Horsey said.
By the government’s count, the storm left 134,000 people dead or missing, and the United Nations estimates that 2.4 million survivors face hunger and homelessness. Yet as the number of aid workers increases, Myanmar’s capacity and willingness to accommodate their needs are likely to be stretched.
“I assume we will be running out of quite a lot of things when the influx comes,” said Hakan Tongul, deputy country director in Yangon of the World Food Program, a United Nations agency delivering supplies to the victims of the storm. “There will be logistical problems for sure.”
In the days after the storm, the World Food Program asked for permission to import six vehicles, Mr. Tongul said. “We haven’t heard anything from the government.”
To the outside world, the government’s torpor in reacting to the cyclone has come across as callous indifference. But dysfunction has also been a factor. When a domestic Myanmar Airways passenger plane crashed in 1999 only three miles from the airport in Tachileik, near the border with Laos and Thailand, it took the authorities five days to locate the wreckage.
“Passengers who might have been saved all perished,” said a frustrated Myanmar government official in Yangon who requested that his name be withheld because talking to a foreign reporter could cause him to lose his job or worse.
“The same thing is happening now,” the official said, referring to the cyclone. “We don’t have the infrastructure for the kind of rescue work we need in times like this. In this country, where everything moves through the military chain of command, no government official takes the initiative.”
China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and other countries struck in recent years by natural disasters have varying degrees of political restrictions. But they all allow something Myanmar has lacked for the past 46 years under military rule: the right to do business.
Myanmar’s government controls many of the country’s largest industries — including timber, gems and petroleum — and requires permits for the importation of the most basic items, including rice. The World Food Program, which fears rice shortages later this year, has been denied permits to bring in foreign rice. “It’s an issue of pride,” said Paul Risley, the agency’s Asia spokesman.
The economy is highly inefficient. Electricity — even in most parts of the commercial capital, Yangon — is available just five or six hours a day. To ride in a taxi in Yangon means a rickety journey on 20-year-old shock absorbers.
A company in India, Myanmar’s neighbor to the west, is preparing to roll out a $2,500 car onto the commercial market. To the east, Thailand exports half a million pickups. But those fortunate enough to own a car in Myanmar are often stuck with a leaking jalopy. The government allows only a few thousand cars to be imported each year, many fewer than are needed in a country with nearly 50 million people. Import restrictions have skewed the prices of used cars to levels that would be considered absurd in neighboring countries: A 1986 Toyota Chaser, a model the company stopped selling eight years ago, sells here for $16,000.
Those vehicles allowed for import are parceled out among high-ranking military officers and civil servants. The richest residents of Yangon have been seen driving Hummers and Italian sports cars.
In such a restrictive environment, the black market thrives. Rationed gasoline, which goes for $250 a gallon, sells for at least twice that at the roadside bamboo shacks that serve as illegal but tolerated gasoline stations. The military, which has easier access to cheap gas, is one of the largest sellers, say drivers who regularly fill up with the illegal fuel.
Government officials and military officers also make money from reselling mobile telephone numbers and car and motorcycle registration documents, all of which are very difficult to obtain.
The Myanmar official who spoke on condition of anonymity gets $120 a month for his official salary, but that hardly meets his needs. “Everyone must find a way to survive,” he said. The police collect bribes at checkpoints from truck drivers. At airports, pilots and ground crews split the extra-luggage surcharges from passengers. “Everyone is doing it,” the official said. “If you don’t or can’t, you are doomed.”
Business people in Yangon say it is impossible to do business without connections to generals or their children.
“Do you see the car out there?” the Myanmar official said, pointing to a used Japanese S.U.V. parked outside a restaurant. “It will probably cost $50,000 to import that car. But it’s sold here for $250,000. The $200,000 balance is for all kinds of government permits.”
The going rate for a mobile phone on Yangon’s black market is $2,500 to $3,000.
The government also makes money by doing business with the United Nations. Each United Nations agency was allowed to buy 10 mobile phone numbers — at $1,500 each, according to Mr. Tongul. In Thailand, by contrast, mobile phone numbers are sometimes given away by companies that count on making their money back on usage of the phone.
A Chinese-made motorcycle in the northern city of Mandalay costs $300 but sells for around $1,000 when the black-market registration is included.
“They squeeze you for money,” said a retired teacher in Yangon who did not want to be named for fear of retribution. “You know the Abraham Lincoln speech about government of the people, by the people, for the people?” the teacher asked. “The people get nothing here, and the military takes everything.”Link