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Burma's wealth gap breeds discontent

Tales of the junta's extravagances trickle down to average citizens, many of whom lack basic items.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2008

Rangoon, Burma

In a country where electricity is available only a few hours a day and those with a job can barely afford the bus ride to work, Burmese pack the teahouses here and gossip about the decadence of the top brass.

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"In Rangoon there is complete neglect, but in Naypyidaw everything is good," Min, a construction worker, tells his friends. He asks that only his first name be used for security reasons. Min is referring to the new capital 250 miles north, to which the top generals and their families have relocated and which cost between $122 million and $244 million to build, according to the International Monetary Fund.

"They are building swimming pools and golf courses and very good roads," Min whispers to the others. "They have better Karaoke clubs too ... with dancing girls!"

The gap between the haves and have-nots in Burma (Myanmar) is growing every day. And it's this poverty and inequality, say observers, that fuels the discontent here – perhaps more than any yearning for democracy.

"If [top leader, General] Than Shwe delivered on the economy," argues Robert Rotberg, director of Harvard's Kennedy School Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution, "[then] everyone would agree to wait for democracy. But the junta robs and strips the economy.... Indeed, the junta systematically loots."

Not that the regime seems eager to deliver political reform, either: Many expect a constitutional referendum set for May 10 to further the junta's control, and do little for individual freedoms.

"The key question is economic," agrees Zin Linn, a Burmese activist and journalist who was jailed for seven years by the junta, and today lives in exile in Thailand. "We are facing starvation because of the junta's policies of mismanagement and selfishness."

Weeks' wages for rice

At independence 60 years ago, Burma was regarded as the Southeast Asian nation "most likely to succeed" based on economic indicators at the time compiled by ALTSEAN, a regional human rights lobby. The country is awash with natural wealth, from extensive oil and gas reserves to world-renowned rubies.

But the country today is aching with poverty. "This country is, how shall I put it, a disaster. A disaster of many decades in the making," half-jokes comedian U Lu Zaw, a member of the famous anti-regime Moustache Brothers comedy troupe in Mandalay.

Within the past five years, the price of cooking oil in Burma has risen tenfold. One sack of the lowest quality rice here costs half of Min's month's wages. The UN estimates that the average household spends more than 70 percent of its income on food. The World Food Program recently announced it would spend $51.7 million over the next three years in food aid for up to 1.6 million vulnerable Burmese.