Burma Parliament Approves Controversial Defense Budget

By Tha Lun Zaung Htet 1 March 2013

RANGOON—Burma’s Union Parliament approved the government’s US $1.15 billion military budget on Friday with an overwhelming majority. More than $600 million will be spent on military hardware, accounting for over half of the controversial budget this year, according to documents obtained by The Irrawaddy.

In a joint vote by the Upper House and Lower House in Naypyidaw, 445 parliamentarians voted in support of the proposed military budget, 60 voted for a reduction of the budget and 7 MPs abstained.

The budget approval 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.

By comparison, this year’s proposed national budget allocates just 4.4 percent of government funds to education and 3.9 percent to health care in the impoverished country, according to opposition MPs.

Steven Thar Bate, an MP with the Chin National Party, had proposed a reduction of military spending to 17 percent of the overall national budget, but his proposal was rejected by the Union Parliament, where the military still holds sway.

Under the 2008 Constitution, military appointees hold 25 percent of seats in Parliament. Many other MPs with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party are former members of the armed forces.

It is the first time however, that the Ministry of Defense has shared details of its annual military budget.

The documents show that it will spend about $631.1 million on military hardware, with about $200 million going to aircraft, $93 million on ships, $30 million on military vehicles, $195 million on military accessories, $112 million on military industries and $1.1 million on weapons.

The remainder of the budget will go on construction projects, including the building of army bases, roads, military-owned businesses and maintaining military universities and schools.

Although it is thought to be a minor decrease on previous budgets, but the size of expenditure – accounting for 21 percent of the total budget – remains controversial.

Figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute show there are only four other countries that spend over 20 percent of their government budget on defense: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Singapore.

Moreover, the government’s figures may represent only part of military spending. Under the Special Funds Law enacted in March 2011, the military is able to access additional funds without parliamentary oversight. This can include the use of Burma’s abundant natural resources to pay for military hardware purchased abroad.

A report by IHS Jane’s, a London-based defense consultancy, this week stated: “Both Moscow and Beijing are known to favor military deals based on deliveries of natural gas and such a payment mechanism is likely to have underpinned major recent deals.”

Earlier this week opposition MPs criticized the high spending on defense.

“The government should use more money for education and health sectors,” said Dr Saw Naing, a senior member of the National League for Democracy from South Okkalapa Township.

Another opposition MP from the Upper Hose, who declined to be named, said that officers in Parliament had approached the opposition to support the defense budget.

“Some of the military MPs unofficially request us not to reduce budget because it is already the lowest among neighboring countries,” he said. “They also said that reducing military budget will hurt national security. I think what they said is right.”