If you are among those fretting about the global financial slump that has taken up so much news time in recent days, spare a thought for the people in Burma. On Aug. 15 the military regime there, which holds a monopoly on the sale of vehicle and generator fuels, multiplied prices without prior announcement. The cost of diesel was doubled. Ordinary petroleum was raised by two-thirds. Compressed natural gas was increased five-fold.
A lot of buses just didn’t run that day. Where they did, fares were immediately increased in line with the new tariffs. Millions of folk who ordinarily venture out with just enough money to arrive at work or school and perhaps get back again were left with a stark alternative: go home or walk. Two young men who took photographs of crowds waiting on the curbs in Rangoon were reportedly detained until that night. In a country without unions, employees in an industrial area demanded more wages.
Four days afterward, around 500 people walked together across Rangoon to urge that the price rise be revoked. One woman tearfully told an outside radio station that she was with them because she was sick and tired, but also determined. Security police took photographs. Onlookers applauded.
On Aug. 21, hundreds again marched, and were this time met by government-organized gangs armed with sticks and slingshots. That night, at least a dozen were arrested at their houses. But that did not deter others: the next day hundreds more, mostly women, took to the streets. At time of writing they too were blocked by thugs acting for police and soldiers.
The price increases come on top of an annual inflation rate of about 40 percent, and at a time that people in many parts of the country have been struggling with floods. Small civic groups have been set up in urban centers to alleviate the needs of the hungry. In rural areas things are far worse; according to one news report (and here), a man in Sagaing Division died in police custody at the start of the month after stealing some instant noodles and a soft drink. Sporadic protests against runaway commodity prices earlier in the year had already been met with arrests and inquiries.
When asked about the unexpected hike, economists were at a loss. Some put it down to sheer incompetence. Most pointed out that it will obviously affect other basic commodities; and jumps in rice, oil and salt prices have already been confirmed. An analyst in Bangkok said the move was in the opposite direction to the rest of the world, and didn’t make sense given that Burma exports natural gas.
Economists cannot and will not be able to explain adequately what happened last Wednesday because their science is rational. It attributes a type of reasoning to the making of choices that is largely absent from policymaking in Burma.
In fact, this absence has characterized the behavior of the state there throughout its modern history. It was epitomized by former dictator General Ne Win, who had banknotes reprinted in divisors of nine for numerological reasons, and whose misrule culminated in the demonetizing of three widely-held notes in 1987, leading to the nationwide anti-government protests of the following year that brought down his socialist party, but not the army.
The banknotes (as shown above) are themselves symbolic of the government’s relationship with its people. A banknote anywhere is a slip of paper. Unlike a coin, it has no intrinsic worth. It obtains value from the promise of an issuing agency to pay the amount shown on its face, which is made legally binding by a signature, seal or other acknowledgement of an authorized representative. Money in Burma has none of these features. It consists of no more than a number and design, not even the state seal. The central bank offers no guarantee to the user of any sort. Its notes are literally just slips of paper.
The regime prints currency that has no legal underpinning because it has no sense of liability toward anyone other than is necessary to protect the personal affairs of its senior members. The notion of a social contract — be it in the European tradition of Rousseau or in the much older Buddhist notion of the original ruler, the Mahajana Sammata — is what above all is missing from its outlook.
Unlike other Asian ruling groups, the army in Burma has refused to accommodate the interests of those from outside its own circle. Successive ruling cliques have, in the words of historian Mary Callahan, “been made up of war fighters who never mastered the art of politics.” In contrast to the generals in Thailand and Indonesia, who have sought to recast themselves as soldiers-cum-politicians, they have for the most part had neither the talent nor propensity to be anything other than soldiers. And soldiers find it easier to make enemies than citizens.
As fuel in Burma is rationed, motorists often rely upon supplies from the black market to reach their destinations. Many store away unused amounts for the future; others sell it. A spare hose is indispensable. In side streets and backyards around the country, drivers siphon the contents of their tanks into plastic bottles and drums: a practice known in some parts as “milking the cow.”
Unless the government reverses the price increase — which would be an unprecedented back down — in the coming months, the cow could be milked dry. Whether or not that will precipitate open conflict between the army and just about everyone else is anyone’s guess.
Popular uprisings usually start with little warning, and pundits and participants alike talk about them with confidence only in hindsight: neither the scale of revolt against the monarchy in Nepal nor the recent outpouring of support for the chief justice of Pakistan were foreseen, or expected to succeed within the relatively short time that they did.
Today Burma is alive with discontent. Its public is perhaps closer to open resistance to the government — as distinct from the quiet subverting of officialdom that is a part of everyday survival there — than at any other time in recent years. But the junta is still in charge, and psychologically very much at war. It has not hesitated in the past to demonstrate that the use of force is its only true recourse, and it can be relied upon to demonstrate the same again. This much, at least, it guarantees.
Dramatic price rises, protests & arrests demand international response, AHRC statement: http://www.ahrchk.net/statements/mainfile.php/2007statements/1157
People of Myanmar deserve far more than trivial and belated comments, AHRC open letter to UN Secretary General: http://www.ahrchk.net/statements/mainfile.php/2007statements/1161