Myanmar Junta Chief’s Wild Economic Plans at Odds With Reality

By The Irrawaddy 1 September 2021

A few months after the Feb. 1 military takeover in Myanmar, coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing began spouting weird instructions seemingly detached from reality, and blind to the fact that the country is rapidly becoming a failed state. From his position at the head of the table at meetings with his subordinates, he has in all seriousness exhorted officials to grow more bananas and create a cattle export industry, to produce palm oil in order to cut expenditures on oil imports, to manufacture herbal anti-coronavirus drugs to combat the country’s disastrous third wave of COVID-19, and even to get to work on creating a metro rail system and launching fleets of electric buses.

When the World Food Program warned in April that more than 3 million Myanmar people were in danger of going hungry in the next three to six months, the senior general responded by pressuring agriculture and livestock businesses to increase production. He summoned members of the Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry to Naypyitaw and urged them to boost exports in the sector.

Recently, the senior general said that the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, had been growing tissue-culture bananas. Bananas are nutrient-dense and good for health, he explained, as he offered to provide banana saplings at reasonable prices to departments at the regional, state, district and township levels that wished to grow the crop. The move reminded Myanmar people of Min Aung Hlaing’s predecessor as dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, and his fruitless state project of growing castor oil trees across the country—including at schools—to produce biofuel for energy security. The ambitious scheme never came close to producing biofuel, and succeeded only in wasting time and money.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has also urged livestock breeders to try to export cattle while boosting both beef and dairy cattle husbandry. He called for systematic measures to make gayal breeding for export successful in Chin State. Yes, gayal is the major species of livestock in Chin State, but the poorest state in Myanmar has not even been able to ensure steady export of gayal to neighboring India.

The junta chief’s dreams of boosting the national economy based on the agriculture and livestock sector—one of the nine objectives of the regime’s administrative body, the State Administration Council—don’t end there. He is also keen to revive another failed project of Snr-Gen Than Shwe—to grow oil palms in lower Thanintharyi Region.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of land were put under oil palm cultivation under the previous regime led by Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who intended to make Tanintharyi the “oil pot” of Myanmar. Thanks to a resulting increase in consumption of the saturated fat-rich oil produced from oil palms, many Myanmar people have developed heart problems and suffered strokes, while valuable forests and vacant land were wasted on the project.

“Oil palms have been grown in Tanintharyi for 30 years now. It was just for show. The forests were lost, and the region never became an oil pot,” said a resident of Tanintharyi’s Dawei Township.

Citing the examples of Malaysia, Indonesia and some African countries, environmentalists have long raised concerns about the devastating impacts of large-scale conversion of tropical forests to oil palm plantations, as it leads to deforestation and extinction of endangered species. Flora and Fauna International has also called for the termination of oil palm projects in Tanintharyi to protect the remaining tropical forests in Myanmar.

On Aug. 1, exactly six months after the coup, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing appointed himself chief minister in a new interim government. This time, he fantasized about producing anti-coronavirus medicines from herbal plants grown in Myanmar. There might be traditional medicine practitioners with profound knowledge of the needed herbs in Karen, Kachin and Shan states, he said.

“If we can work out a scientific formula together by determining the exact amount of ingredients technically, we will be in a position to produce anti-COVID-19 drugs domestically,” the senior general said.

In response, Dr. Thein Win, a consultant on the National Health Committee, a body jointly formed by the parallel National Unity Government and ethnic armed groups’ healthcare organizations, said: “Anything that is said without considering medical aspects does not make sense.”

On Aug. 17, Min Aung Hlaing amused many in Myanmar as he sat down at a meeting of the Naypyitaw City Development Committee and instructed officials to create a neat, smart, green city with an underground metro rail system and electric buses for residents. The senior general vowed to upgrade the administrative capital’s transportation system with the electric buses, and to introduce them to other parts of the country later.

His plan to run electric buses in a country that has long suffered from frequent blackouts shows the degree to which he is out of touch with reality. By announcing his electric bus scheme, he publicly demonstrated that he is just a fantasist. In reality, the bus service in Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon, has deteriorated since the military seized power from the National League for Democracy government. Commuters are overcharged, buses are no longer punctual and drivers violate the traffic rules.

Seven months since the military takeover, the military regime is still struggling to exercise administrative power. Hundreds if not thousands of government employees are on strike and have refused to work under the regime. As part of the wider Civil Disobedience Movement, people have been boycotting payments of any kind to the regime, including paying taxes and utility bills or buying state lottery tickets. The regime is barely earning income and the coup maker has publicly told his ministers to cut expenditures. Anti-regime protests continue daily and clashes between civilian resistance fighters and the regime are escalating day by day in many parts of the country.

Against such a backdrop, the coup leader’s high-flown dreams continue to amaze the public. His words remind many in Myanmar of one of the country’s previous military rulers, Senior General Saw Maung, to whom military dictator General Ne Win handed power in 1988.

A year earlier, Myanmar was listed among the world’s least developed countries thanks to the mismanagement of Gen. Ne Win, who ruled the country for a total of 26 years following a 1962 coup. Seriously short of foreign currency amid political and economic chaos, Snr-Gen Saw Maung told the Myanmar people, who were suffering severe hardships including skyrocketing commodity prices, that Myanmar had a surplus of rice while Western countries were suffering from food insecurity and had to import supplies. Myanmar, he said, was unique in the world.

Not long after saying this, the then military ruler was found to be suffering from mental illness; forced to retire, he eventually died a recluse.

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