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Myanmar's generals amass fortunes while country flounders

world Updated: May 11, 2008 13:40 IST

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 regime has pledged some four million dollars to help victims of the disaster, but analysts say the top generals are sitting on immense wealth plundered from the sale of the country's vast natural resources.

"They 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."

After more than 45 years of isolation and military rule, Myanmar 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 junta spends just 0.3 percent of GDP on health care, and 1.3 per cent on education, UN figures show.

Yet while ordinary people grow poorer, critics say the generals have been lining their pockets with profits from the nation's vast bounty of oil, gas, tropical hardwood forests, and mines brimming with gems.

Economic sanctions from Europe and the United States were tightened after last year's deadly crackdown on demonstrations sparked by rising fuel costs, but booming Thailand, India and China continue to be big customers.

A semi-official Myanmar newspaper reported last month that the country earned 2.7 billion dollars from gas exports in 2007, an 80 percent increase from the previous year as more wells come on line.

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.

"That's increasing at about 150 million dollars per month," he told AFP.

"It seems that only the very top of the regime has access -- indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that many, even in the (junta) itself, have no idea the country is accumulating this much."

John Virgoe, Southeast Asia director for think tank International Crisis Group, said that little of the nation's wealth trickles down to its 50 million mostly impoverished citizens.

"The ordinary people, if anything, have suffered from these investments because of the problem of forced labour and forced relocations," he told AFP.

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 dollars.

An even bigger fortune is thought to have been spent on the relocation and construction in 2006 of a new capital in the remote scrublands of central Myanmar called Naypyidaw -- "The Abode of Kings".

"You can't comprehend when someone says 'Burma is so poor', when you see these lavish weddings," said Aung Naing Oo.

"If they had a little selflessness, then Burma would be a very different country."

The tragedy, analysts say, is that Myanmar does not need to reach into its own funds to pay for the relief effort for Cyclone Nargis, which hit on May 3 killing at least 23,000 people by official count.

The world has pledged nearly 100 million dollars in assistance, 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.