The Burmese government plans to spend a big chunk of its annual budget on beefing up the country's military and security sectors, ignoring immense social needs despite a pledge to adopt democratic reforms under “civilian” rule.
The government drafted a budget of U.S. $8.45 billion for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, of which U.S. $2 billion, or nearly 24 percent, will be provided to the Ministry of Defense.
Much of the remaining budget will be allocated to finance, energy, and construction, with a staggeringly low 4.3 percent earmarked for education, 1.3 percent for health care, and 0.26 percent for welfare.
Tin Oo, vice chairman of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), said the government must exhibit greater transparency in the process of planning and approving the expenditures.
"We need to inform the public on all parliamentary-related issues, whether they are right or wrong. This budget was endorsed by the military government before the legislature even sat, which is not right,” he said.
After holding elections for the first time in more than 20 years as part of a bid to transition to a civilian government, Burma’s outgoing military regime endorsed the draft budget before the country’s new parliament met for its Jan. 31 inaugural session.
The draft budget proposal was also signed by outgoing junta supremo Than Shwe, who many expect will continue to wield power behind newly named president Thein Sein and the parliament—largely comprising former military chiefs who gave up their positions in the lead-up to the Nov. 7 polls.
The timing of the endorsement means that the budget will be rubber-stamped by parliament before coming into effect on April 1.
The NLD also recently criticized a new law that allows Thein Sein access to a special fund for "national sovereignty" expenditures over which parliament has no authority.
Similar funds which lack oversight are often used by governments to obscure military activities or as slush funds, which can lead to corruption.
Role for the public?
Tin Oo said that Burma’s tax money and natural resources are owned by the public, including the country’s ethnic nationalities, and that the public should have a say in deciding how the money is spent.
“The defense budget is only for the purpose of safeguarding [the country’s] independence and national sovereignty. Now that these issues are no longer subject to questioning, [the government’s] explanation regarding the use of these 'special funds' just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“The people must be included, as they are the owners of these funds and resources, and need to be informed as to how they are being used.”
Tin Oo called on the government to create a monitoring system to protect public funds from corruption and bribery.
“Currently, the public is not allowed to participate, not allowed to question [the expenditures], despite the government promoting what they call a ‘disciplined democracy.’ This opposes the rights of the public and the very principles of democracy."
David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University, said that while Burma continues to favor the military in its annual budget, the actual amount of planned expenditures could be much higher than the government has been willing to reveal.
“Historically, when they have released figures, the military budget was always very high—20 to25 percent for decades, and actually much more because much of it is hidden,” he said, adding that some estimates put the spending as high as 40 percent, though it is impossible to be sure.
“The budget process is anything but transparent, and has not been for at least half a century.”
According to the Financial Times 2004 World Desk Reference, Burma increased its military spending by 27 percent annually to U.S. $2.84 billion in 2002, doubling the size of its army and obtaining modern weapons and military technology from around the world, though primarily from China.
The report said Burma’s military is used primarily to control internal dissent, as well as to suppress the country’s ethnic insurgent campaigns and cut deals with rebel leaders.
At the time of the report, the Burmese armed forces consisted of an army with 100 battle tanks and 350,000 personnel, a navy with 75 patrol boats and 16,000 personnel, and an air force with 123 combat aircraft and 15,000 personnel.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies said Burma’s armed forces numbered 492,000, or ninth in the world per capita, in 2010.
Steinberg said that although the government has continued to ignore the welfare of the average Burmese citizen in favor of military investment, the budget allocation does not necessarily speak to any fear of a popular uprising, such as the recent “Jasmine” rallies that have spread through the Middle East.
“The regime has been very parsimonious in making its resources available for [the] health, education, [and] agricultural credit, [sectors]. The people continue to suffer,” Steinberg said.
“[But] I think the military is not concerned with the problems of the Middle East, as they may feel the recent elections have diffused political frustration, at least for the time being,” he said.
“There is a tendency among well-wishers of democracy in Burma to look for signs of collapse, change, and so on in the military. But I think that at least for the near term this will not happen.”
But Steinberg did not rule out the possibility of a “spark,” or lone incident, setting off a larger movement for change in Burma.
“Authoritarian regimes can end through sparks like that … so this is always possible, but more likely to be homegrown if it were to happen.”
Reported by Nayrein Kyaw for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.