Spate of Myanmar privatisations raises questions

BANGKOK: Myanmar's junta has embarked on a flurry of privatisations of state firms, raising questions about whether it is reforming the economy or trying to take profits before 2010 elections.

The military government, which faces strict Western sanctions because of its human rights record, is trying to sell off petrol stations, ports and state-owned buildings including cinemas and warehouses.

The move has added to unease in the country, with this year's polls set to shift power within the entrenched military structure, and a history of social unrest linked to economic change in Myanmar.

The government is planning to sell a network of about 250 state-owned gas stations around the country, including 53 in the commercial hub Yangon, Myanmar's privatisation commission office said in February.

State newspapers called for potential buyers to submit proposals to run the stations for "smooth sales" of petrol "in the private sector in accord with the open market economy."

The regime also invited private enterprises to tender for the running of four ports in the country as well as business operations on the Yangon river.

Sean Turnell, a specialist on Myanmar's economy, said he thought the privatisations were sparked by some desire to reform, and were also an attempt by current members of the junta to cash out while they retain power.

"I am taking a bit of comfort from the fact that, although it is bad... because resources that belong to the people are being taken, it also seems to be a signal of uncertainty amongst the groups which are in power," Turnell, of Macquarie University in Australia, told AFP.

Myanmar remains one of the world's poorest nations after its economy was run down by a previous socialist but also military-run regime.

The economy has previously been the catalyst for pro-democracy uprisings against the current junta, which took power in 1988 and has struggled to reform the economy.

A massive and unannounced hike in fuel prices in August 2007 unleashed protests led by Buddhist monks that snowballed into the biggest threat to the ruling junta in nearly 20 years.

And mass student-led pro-democracy rallies in 1988 were triggered when the regime invalidated currency notes the previous year in a bid to clamp down on the black market.

Turnell said that the junta's overall motive to privatise was to boost its position ahead of this year's elections, which rights groups and the international community fear will be neither free nor fair.

New election laws unveiled this month bar opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi from standing in the polls and also force her National League for Democracy party to expel her or face dissolution.

Turnell said the junta, accused by critics of enriching itself by selling off Myanmar's natural resources to Asian countries including China, India and Thailand, was also simply raising much-needed cash.

Wielding economic power to win over various electoral groups is likely part of the junta's reason to privatise. "But also connected there does seem to be a big cash shortage in the place," he said.

"They have a lot of money from gas revenues but very little comes into Burma itself given that it is mostly under control of generals one and two," he said, referring to junta leader Senior General Than Shwe and second in command Maung Aye. Burma is the former name for Myanmar.

But behind the doubts could lie some hope for change.

Than Shwe must relinquish power to a new national assembly after the elections, and although he may take on a new presidential position created by a 2008 constitution, he may be worried about rivals to his power, Turnell said.

"Perhaps these guys have some doubts and that is something we have not seen there for a long time," he said.

Aung Naing Oo, a Myanmar political analyst in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, agreed that the privatisations could be a sign of shifting sands in Myanmar.

"Given the steps the military government has taken in the past six months, including privatisation, to me it indicates that things are changing," he told AFP.