Than Shwe 'pinning hopes' on UN

Burmese junta chief Than Shwe has hailed the UN’s work in promoting global living standards in a move that critics claim smacks of irony.

The 77-year-old yesterday issued a statement in the state-run New Light of Myanmar that said: “We pin our hopes on the United Nations in bringing about a better, more prosperous and peaceful world,” and praised its work  “promoting social justice [and] economic progress”. The statement was made to mark United Nations Day.

But critics said the comments were highly ironic given his government’s record in promoting the same goals for its own citizens. “Based on where the junta is spending the money, there’s no sign that this regime is sensitive to the notion of social justice. It’s all words, with no substance at all,” said Maung Zarni, a research fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE).

The country’s record in providing electricity supply was just one area in which the government was letting its citizens down, he told DVB. Regional countries such as Cambodia and Laos were aiming for 90 to 95 percent electrification in rural areas.

By contrast, less than 20 percent of Burmese households have electricity supply, Zarni said. The country was nevertheless exporting huge amounts of energy to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and China.

Zarni also pointed to the expulsion of UN country chief Charles Petrie from Burma in 2007 after he made comments deploring the country’s humanitarian situation. Petrie’s visa was not renewed one week after a press conference at which he made comments that clearly displeased the Burmese regime.

“They for all intents and purposes expelled a world-respected UN coordinator three years ago simply because he mentioned the social, economic and humanitarian conditions in a somewhat unfavourable light,” Zarni said.

Amnesty International’s Burma researcher, Benjamin Zawacki, echoed the criticisms, claming that social justice and economic progress were “clearly not a priority” for Than Shwe. Indeed, keeping the population of Burma poor, especially in ethnic areas, had been used by the junta as a political tool.

“It’s not even that these things have been neglected in Myanmar [Burma],” he said. “Humanitarian assistance and economic development – these things are actually politicised in this country and used as yet another tool of the government for suppressing its people. So the irony there is palpable.”

The government was failing to achieve most of its UN Millennium Development Goals, he added. Of the eight goals, which Burma is committed to achieving by 2015, the country is on track only to achieve the provision of universal primary education and promoting gender equality and empowering women.

“Most of them are way behind in terms of their targets, and even those that are on target have largely been because of international assistance or other forces that are independent of the government’s own efforts,” he said. “The government has really failed to take any affirmative steps towards the realisation of economic and social progress in the country.”

A number of United Nations agencies have a presence in Burma, including the United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF, the UNHCR and UNAIDS.

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