| Robin McDowell |
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – Staff hired to work with the US government’s aid agency in Myanmar are preparing to move out of their office following revelations their landlord is a notorious former spymaster who oversaw the imprisonment and torture of thousands of pro-democracy activists.
The debacle surrounding Development Alternatives Inc, a company contracted by USAID to deliver humanitarian programmes, highlights the contradictions ensnaring foreign donors who flocked to the country after reclusive military leaders ended a half-century of iron-fisted rule and self-imposed isolation.
With almost all property in the biggest city Yangon owned by former and current generals and their cronies, much of which was seized during military rule, many organisations find themselves funding a tarnished elite that still holds sway despite elections.
The US government, via its aid proxies, has been lining the pockets of former spy chief Gen Khyin Nyunt since Washington eased economic sanctions two years ago.
UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, pays $87,000 a month to a famously corrupt former minister; the European Union around $80,000 to a conglomerate founded by a drug kingpin; the World Health Organization $79,000 a month, to a mystery owner.
For Development Alternatives, there was only one way to clear its name: Move. Development Alternatives “failed to take proper account of the political context of Myanmar,” said spokesman Steven O’Connor of its 2012 decision to sign a $7,000 a month lease with Khin Nyunt’s family.
When President Barack Obama and other world leaders arrive in Myanmar on Wednesday for a regional summit they will have a chance to reflect on reforms implemented immediately after President Thein Sein’s 2011 inauguration, many of which have since stalled or experienced a worrying backslide.
The military controls the parliament and is blocking popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s path to the presidency. Business conglomerates linked to the old guard remain the engines of the economy and the main beneficiaries of more than $10 billion in post-junta foreign investment and aid.
The scandal behind Myanmar’s “development aid rush” was revealed by the Irrawaddy news agency earlier this year.
It reported that UNICEF was paying astronomical rent for a three-story house belonging to the family of Nyunt Tin, one of the most corrupt ministers under Gen Than Shwe’s former junta.
Noting its rent was “steep”, the agency said it looked at some 40 properties before signing the seven-year lease.
Decades of corruption and mismanagement by military regimes, together with crippling sanctions by the West, turned the country of 50 million from one of the richest in Asia to among the poorest.
Most buildings in Yangon are in a serious state of disrepair, but some experts say international organisations should play a role in saving these crumbling reminders of Myanmar’s past.
“You don’t have to walk 200 metres in this city to find a property that is not being used,” said Lex Rieffel, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution of the magnificent colonial-era buildings threatened by demolition.
“These agencies say they are helping the country develop,” said Rieffel, an expert on Myanmar who has worked for USAID, the US Treasury Department and several international NGOs. “Well, one of the ways you do that is take under-utilised space and utilise it.”
There are few offices as ostentatious as that now occupied by the World Health Organization, located in a palatial mansion on one of Yangon’s busiest thoroughfares, and surrounded by an imposing eight-foot-high concrete wall and cast iron gates. When asked about allegations it belonged to the family of the country’s current commander in chief, WHO’s acting country representative Krongthong Thimasarn said “the building is owned neither by General Min Aung Hlaing nor his daughter, but by a landlady whose name is Daw Khin Nwe Mar Tun”.
Efforts by The Associated Press and local media organisations to track her down were unsuccessful. Former and current generals and cronies put their assets under the names of relatives to avoid scrutiny.
Thimasarn said the rent came to nearly $1 million a year. That’s enough to immunise 30,000 children against diseases such as measles, polio and hepatitis B. The European Union, which has one of the biggest aid programmes in Myanmar at more than $1 billion, described the property debate as one of the “struggles of transition”.