27 August 2007

burmese economics

extracts from a great UPI column article:

If you are among those fretting about the global financial slump that has taken up so much news time in recent days, spare a thought for the people in Burma. On Aug. 15 the military regime there, which holds a monopoly on the sale of vehicle and generator fuels, multiplied prices without prior announcement. The cost of diesel was doubled. Ordinary petroleum was raised by two-thirds. Compressed natural gas was increased five-fold.

A lot of buses just didn't run that day. Where they did, fares were immediately increased in line with the new tariffs. Millions of folk who ordinarily venture out with just enough money to arrive at work or school and perhaps get back again were left with a stark alternative: go home or walk...

When asked about the unexpected hike, economists were at a loss. Some put it down to sheer incompetence. Most pointed out that it will obviously affect other basic commodities; and jumps in rice, oil and salt prices have already been confirmed. An analyst in Bangkok said the move was in the opposite direction to the rest of the world, and didn't make sense given that Burma exports natural gas.

Economists cannot and will not be able to explain adequately what happened last Wednesday because their science is rational. It attributes a type of reasoning to the making of choices that is largely absent from policymaking in Burma.

In fact, this absence has characterized the behavior of the state there throughout its modern history... A banknote anywhere is a slip of paper. Unlike a coin, it has no intrinsic worth. It obtains value from the promise of an issuing agency to pay the amount shown on its face, which is made legally binding by a signature, seal or other acknowledgement of an authorized representative. Money in Burma has none of these features. It consists of no more than a number and design, not even the state seal. The central bank offers no guarantee to the user of any sort. Its notes are literally just slips of paper.

The regime prints currency that has no legal underpinning because it has no sense of liability toward anyone other than is necessary to protect the personal affairs of its senior members. The notion of a social contract--be it in the European tradition of Rousseau or in the much older Buddhist notion of the original ruler, the Mahajana Sammata--is what above all is missing from its outlook.

Unlike other Asian ruling groups, the army in Burma has refused to accommodate the interests of those from outside its own circle. Successive ruling cliques have, in the words of historian Mary Callahan, "been made up of war fighters who never mastered the art of politics." In contrast to the generals in Thailand and Indonesia, who have sought to recast themselves as soldiers-cum-politicians, they have for the most part had neither the talent nor propensity to be anything other than soldiers. And soldiers find it easier to make enemies than citizens...

21 August 2007

let's go biking

paris apparently has this cool bike rental scheme going on, velib. you can pick up a bike anywhere, ride the first 30 mins for free, and then drop it off again wherever you please.

in one of my classes last term, while discussing the montreal protocol and other fascinating stuff, someone brought up using bikes as an alternative to cars.. a canadian classmate mentioned how there were schemes in place to encourage canadians to bike more. my chinese professor said the opposite seemed to be true in china; where once the majority of people used bikes, this was becoming harder to do in many areas, with bike lanes closing and fewer places to park your bike. i am not sure of the reasons for this, but you would think china would want to continue its biking tradition..

i like this biking idea. even in a city like hk, i know several people who use their bikes as alternative modes of transportation. its good exercise, cheap and environmentally friendly; what more could you want?! i'm renewing my resolution to become a better biker..

20 August 2007

fashionable religion

while abdullah gul, turkey's foreign minister and presidential candidate is at present pledging to be an 'impartial president', one news article notes that "it is his wife's new headscarf that may make all the difference". hayrunissa gul, who once challenged turkey's ban on headscarves before the european court of human rights, is now pondering ways to 'modernize' her headscarf to make it less contentious.


63% of turkish women wear a headscarf. and yet headscarves are banned in all government institutions, including universities. so i guess there are few women in government or in universities... how sad. i do not understand why wearing a headscarf is equated with being anti secular. secularism relates to the separation of religion and government in public affairs, but when did it begin to mean that you cannot practice a religion while being a civil servant? or is it only when the religion in practice is islam that there is a problem?

15 August 2007

sixty years and what?

independence celebrations have always seemed a little strange to me, contradictory even. i see lavish ceremonies (the cost of which could easily have fed and clothed a large number of the country's poor and marginalized) and government officials spewing platitudes and blatant lies regarding the condition of its citizens.

sixty years ago, India was freed from its existence as a british colony. according to some, from a colony it has now become a dysfunctional state:

"The state of affairs in India as of today concerning its civil administration and the other pillars of democracy is similar to the psyche of a raging mob...

"A direct result of a failing executive machinery is the alarming number of starvation deaths in India. India as of today does not face a food crisis. However thousands in India die from acute starvation and malnutrition. One tenth of the country’s population goes to bed hearing the cries of their children for food. Starvation and malnutrition is a direct result of executive malfunction. Deaths from starvation are gruesome examples of how a failed executive forces death upon the people it is supposed to serve."

so what is there to celebrate? when india's constitution was being drafted after independence, there was much discussion regarding how to bring about a document that would prevent atrocities committed under the british raj from recurring, including the arbitrary detention of political prisoners and discrimination on the basis of caste. the document now exists with the relevant clauses, and yet the practices remain.

and what of the forgotten refugees in west bengal's cooper camp?

"We first came here as refugees in 1947,' says Kajal Roy, his eyes watering from the smoke that fills his bamboo and mud home. 'We used cow dung for fuel then, as we do now. Nothing has really changed for us. When we fled from East Bengal to West Bengal 60 years ago, our land in the camp was marked out by a few pebbles: 20 square feet a head. The pebbles are still there, dug into the ground...

"Coopers Camp is the sub-continent's oldest and least-known refugee camp. A hangover from another era, it represents a major embarrassment for the progressive West Bengal government, which remains focused on industrial development around Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). As India has grown from strength to strength amid economic resurgence, life seems to have passed by the people of 'Partition Camp 17', 200km north of India's famous 'City of Joy'. Few Indians even know of the camp's existence."

pakistan and bangladesh have their own demons to deal with--a military dictatorship and failing democracy amongst others.

here is my wish list for the next year:
no one should die of starvation or malnutrition.
there should be no victims of honor killings.
extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and custodial torture should not be tolerated; the responsible persons should be prosecuted and punished according to law.

when these become reality, then we can celebrate.