Billion-dollar Military Budget Irks MPS

By Lawi Weng 21 February 2013

RANGOON — Burmese opposition lawmakers have expressed dissatisfaction with a proposed budget that will give the country’s armed forces more than US $1 billion in funding in the coming fiscal year, and have criticized the lack of transparency in military spending.

Earlier this week, a draft budget was submitted to Parliament that will again make the military by far the largest recipient of public funds, granting it more than one-fifth of the total budget—slightly lower than the amount it was awarded last year.

Some MPs said that defense spending—long the top priority of the successive military regimes that ruled Burma for five decades—continues to impose an enormous burden on the country, preventing it from tackling other issues such as poverty.

“They say they want 1.067 trillion kyat [$1.15 billion] for the armed forces. That’s a huge amount, especially compared to what’s being spent on health care and education. And nobody knows how they [the armed forces] are spending that money,” said Upper House MP Pe Than, from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

“If this continues, our people and our country will never escape from poverty. They need to stop spending so much on the military,” he added.

According to Pe Than, the proposed budget allocates just 4.4 percent of government funds to education and 3.9 percent to health care. The junta that handed over power to the current quasi-civilian government in 2011 spent significantly less than this on public welfare, while routinely awarding itself 40 to 60 percent of the national budget.

Lower House MP Daw Dwebu, from the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State, said she called on the Defense Ministry to provide details of how it plans to use the money it says it needs. “They say they want to have a modern Tatmadaw [armed forces], but they should say what they mean by this.”

Nai Banyar Aung Moe, a Lower House MP from the All Mon Regions Democracy Party, said that the demand for excessive defense spending shows that Burma is still far from free of the legacy of half a century of military rule.

“The army was in total control for a long time, and it may take many more years before we can end its influence in politics,” he said. “In the meantime, the military still wants to dominate.”

If the army needs more money, he said, it should use it to support rank-and-file soldiers and their families, so they will be able to improve their livelihoods without exploiting civilians, especially in ethnic areas.

One Upper House MP who asked not to be identified also expressed dissatisfaction with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue of military spending.

Suu Kyi, who is the daughter of Gen Aung San, the founder of Burma’s armed forces, recently said that she is still “fond” of the country’s military, despite its often brutal mistreatment of ethnic minorities and suppression of democratic forces.

Under Burma’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution, armed forces appointees occupy 25 percent of seats in Parliament.