- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

RANGOON, Burma — As military-ruled Burma sinks deeper into economic stagnation, only the country’s famed elephants may be assured of jobs.

Eighty percent of Burma’s 4,000 tame elephants work in the timber industry, moving 700,000 tons of teak and other precious wood for export, which annually brings in more than $300 million.

?As long as the country depends on the timber industry to get foreign currency, elephants will be crucial,? U Aung Myint, an official of a government-owned timber company, recently told the Myanmar Times newspaper here.

?Unlike in other Asian countries, no elephants will lose their jobs [in Burma] for at least 10 years,? Mr. Myint said.

This is not the case, though, for ordinary Burmese. It is estimated that more than three-quarters of the country’s 100,000 garment workers became unemployed during the past two years with the collapse of the $450 million garment-export industry.

This followed a U.S. ban on the import of Burmese products after thugs linked to the ruling military junta attacked pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade in May 2003, injuring her and killing several supporters.

?The scene at the garment manufacturing township west of Rangoon is extremely depressing,? said a business analyst. ?Thousands of young women are jobless because many factories have moved to Thailand, Laos or Cambodia.?

The garment-export disaster came close on the heels of a banking sector fiasco that hit almost all businesses. And last year, a food crisis triggered by the end of the rice subsidy led the government to ban rice exports.

?The economy is completely stuck and reforms have been totally abandoned,? said a Western official. ?The regime is mainly engaged in firefighting operations.?

In the 1990s, Rangoon had the atmosphere of a city on the rise. Today, many hotel rooms are vacant, tourism is stagnant, the property bubble has burst, and even sales of secondhand cars have plummeted.

Rangoon taxi drivers complain that in just one year, their daily earnings have been halved to 10,000 kyats (about $11).

?Anyone who can is leaving for jobs in Thailand, Singapore or Malaysia,? said a young cabbie. ?There’s no future here.? But the ruling State Peace and Development Council under military strongman Gen. Than Shwe, 72, seems unperturbed.

Last year, the International Monetary Fund estimated the gross domestic product of Burma — population 52 million — at $11.7 billion.

The IMF put per capita annual income in Burma at $225, down from the World Bank’s estimate of $300 in 2000 but higher than the $180 recently estimated by the Economist Intelligence Unit, making Burma one of the poorest countries in the world.

?The government says GDP growth is over 13 percent, but according to the IMF, it’s barely on the positive side of zero,? said a diplomat.

Whatever the truth, one thing is clear: The economic downturn has caused a rapid fall in the value of Burma’s currency, the kyat. ?Five years ago, 300 kyats got you one U.S. dollar; today it’s 900 kyats,? said a Western official.

The World Food Program is providing food aid to 600,000 people in five of the country’s 14 administrative regions, and the United Nations Children’s Fund has estimated that a third of the child population is malnourished.

The deepening economic malaise has led foreign observers to predict that Burma is on the brink of another popular upheaval similar to that of 1988, when the government of Gen. Ne Win was overthrown.

But visitors driving through verdant central Burma soon realize that the country, blessed with abundant water and a low population density, has none of the grinding rural poverty typical of neighboring Bangladesh or India.

?Mother Nature is kind to us,? said the business analyst. ?Even the price of rice is stabilizing. There are no signs that the people are about to revolt.?

The country has abundant natural resources, and the generals are banking on natural gas, which already accounts for more than a quarter of its $2.6 billion in exports, for long-term economic growth.

Meanwhile, the hard-working Burmese elephant is doing double duty to earn sorely needed dollars. Besides lifting logs, Jumbo now attracts foreign visitors to ?elephant tourism? sites at logging camps deep in the jungle.

The reporter is not identified in order to avoid reprisals by the Burmese government.

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