Intelligence (September 2008)
covering burma and southeast asia
Friday, May 29, 2020

Intelligence (September 2008)



Behind the Scenes at the Bush Meeting

US President George W Bush met with Thailand-based Burmese exiles in August, in a strong show of American support for Burma’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement.

The meeting was the first of its kind between a US head of state and members of the Burmese diaspora in Thailand. Earlier suggestions that it might take place in Chiang Mai, home to many Burmese exiles, were soon dropped in favor of an informal lunch gathering at the US ambassador’s residence in Bangkok, to allay Thai concerns about roiling relations with its neighbor.

Although Bush did not signal any change in the US policy of isolating Burma’s military rulers, those who attended the gathering noted the presence of a Burmese aid worker involved in Cyclone Nargis relief efforts in the Irrawaddy delta. Some members of the exiled dissident community suggested that the last-minute invitation to this individual was intended to represent the pro-engagement camp. However, inside sources said that the aid worker was a professional who maintained her distance from the regime.

While Bush played host to his Burmese guests, his wife, Laura, visited the Mae Tao clinic in the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot and the Mae La refugee camp, home to some 45,000 refugees. Despite Thai concerns about the safety of the US delegation in an area notorious for cross-border raids by groups allied to the Burmese army, the visit was completed without a hitch.

The exiles who met the Bushes were pleasantly surprised by their level of interest in Burmese issues. US officials later said that both had learned a great deal from their encounters with the Thai-based exiles. The president came away from his meeting with a sense that the problems facing Burma were “complex,” said a Washington-based official.

Will Soe Tha Get It Right this Time?

Burmese Minister for National Planning and Economic Development Soe Tha. (Photo: AFP)
Stung by charges that millions of dollars are being creamed off cyclone aid in a sophisticated currency scam, the Burmese regime has come up with a proposal it hopes will allay the accusations.

The military government’s minister for national planning and economic development, Soe Tha, suggests that aid agencies could bypass dubious currency exchange regulations by paying dollars directly into the bank accounts of Burmese vendors from whom they purchase goods and services.

At present, aid agencies have to exchange their dollars for foreign exchange certificates at a rate below the real value of the US currency. The discrepancy results in the disappearance of large amounts of dollars, and some donor countries are demanding to know where the money goes.

However, Soe Tha’s proposal hasn’t been received with much enthusiasm by the aid agencies.

Soe Tha is the man who exaggerated the cost of the damage wrought by Cyclone Nargis, telling the donor conference in Rangoon in May that US $11 billion would be required to rebuild the devastated areas and their economies. The Asean-Burma-UN group that surveyed the damage put the cost at $4 billion, however.

In another misleading statement, Soe Tha said the rice output in Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions made up only 2.3 percent of the nation’s total production. Experts agree that the two regions, in fact, produce more than 50 percent of the country’s rice.

Soe Tha was appointed minister for national planning and economic development in 1999, after the dismissal of Brig-Gen David Abel. His area of expertise before this appointment was in the postal service and telecommunications—where observers say he should have gained greater skills in economic planning and reliable prognosis.

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