Posts tagged ‘Burma’

June 28, 2014

Effects of Laos dam project to be revealed


Laos takes ‘courteous’ approach to next Mekong dam project, agrees to consult before work starts


June 28, 2014

Updated 2 hours 31 minutes ago

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Fishing at rapids in the Siphandone area of the Mekong River in Laos

Fishing at rapids in Siphandone area, site of proposed Don Sahong hydro-electric dam.  Photo: International Rivers

Laos has agreed to consult its neighbours before starting construction of a second controversial dam on the Mekong River.

It’s already going ahead with the much bigger Xayaburi dam to supply power to China, despite opposition from Vietnam and Cambodia.

Agreement to allow environmental assessments and for a formal consultation process on the proposed Don Sahong dam was reached at a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Bangkok.

The commission comprises Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Laos accepted environmental and other studies for the Xayaburi dam after pressure from its neighbours, but went ahead with construction even while they were being conducted.

But this time Vientiane has given an assurance work will not start during the six-month consultation process, describing the move as a “courtesy”.

The Don Sahong project is the second of 11 hydroelectric dams planned for the Mekong mainstream, which has raised concerns about the impact on the environment and livelihoods of millions of people.

It will generate 260 megawatts of electricity, mainly for export to Thailand and Cambodia compared with Xayaburi’s 1,260 megawatts, around 95 percent of which will go to Thailand.

The environmental group International Rivers is among those to have welcomed the decision.

But it says further action is needed “to ensure that the rapid progress of dam building on the Mekong … does not go unchecked”.

Officials say recommendations resulting from the studies of the Don Sahong project would not be binding on Laos.


Effects of Laos dam project to be revealed

Posted on 27 June 2014

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Two Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins spotted at Tbong Kla deep pool
© WWF- Cambodia/ Gerad Ryan

WWF welcomes the Lao Government’s decision to have the Don Sahong hydropower project undergo a formal consultation process, a decision likely to delay construction of the project.

The consultation process requires Laos to hold inter-governmental consultations before proceeding with the dam, and conduct and share studies on the project’s environmental and the social impacts. The process will take at least six months to complete.

“Laos is now promising to do what they already signed up to under the Mekong agreement, and should have done months ago” said Marc Goichot, WWF-Greater Mekong’s lead on sustainable hydropower. “Their decision to consult on the Don Sahong project, and share critical details about the project’s impacts, comes after intense pressure from neighbouring countries. It is critical that pressure is maintained to ensure Laos delivers on their promise.”

In September last year, Laos announced its decision to proceed with the Don Sahong dam, bypassing the Mekong River Commision’s (MRC) consultation process.

The much-criticised project was discussed at the June 26-27 meeting of the MRC – an inter-governmental agency made up of representatives from the four Lower Mekong nations — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

The Don Sahong dam threatens the Mekong’s critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins and will block the only channel available for dry-season fish migration, putting the world’s largest inland fishery at risk. Close to 200,000 people have signed WWF’s petition calling on the dam builder, Mega First, to pull out of the project.

“We thank people around the world who signed the WWF’s petition to stop the Don Sahong dam,” added Goichot. “Mega First would do well to listen to the growing voices of opposition to this disastrous project and reconsider their engagement.”

The Don Sahong dam is the second dam on the Lower Mekong mainstem, following the controversial Xayaburi dam that Laos has begun constructing despite opposition from neighbouring Cambodia and Vietnam.

“The Mekong River Commission’s joint decision-making process was effectively broken in 2012 when Laos decided unilaterally to proceed with Xayaburi dam, against the express wishes of Vietnam and Cambodia,” added Goichot.

“There is currently little faith in the MRC’s process to ensure joint decisions are made for the benefit of all Mekong nations. If Laos fails to be held to account, the MRC will soon lose its legitimacy and 60 million people living in the Mekong basin will suffer.”

Crowd of children with Pra or River catfish (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus). River catfish are closely related to the Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), a critically endangered Mekong endemic specieis. The Mekong giant catfish migrates from the Tonle Sap Lake to the Mekong River at the end of the rainy season each year and a dam like Don Sahong would block their migration.
© Zeb Hogan / WWF-Canon



April 2, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi Party: Suu Kyi wins Myanmar election

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April 01, 2012|By the CNN Wire Staff

Opposition leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in Myanmar’s parliament Sunday, her party said, a momentous victory following a decades-long fight for democracy.

Staff from Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, said she won and that several hundred people were waiting at NLD headquarters to celebrate the news, party spokesman Nyan Win said.

The chairman of the Yangon region of the election commission, Ko Ko, said official results may be known by Monday morning.

The formerly banned National League for Democracy was vying for 45 seats in the election. While the balance of power in the parliament will not change even if the opposition were to win all 45, the vote itself marks a symbolic victory for many in the country who have lived under military rule for 50 years.

Suu Kyi, 66, won by a landslide the last time Myanmar held multiparty elections, in 1990, but the junta ignored the results and placed her under house arrest.

Released in November 2010, Suu Kyi was allowed to crisscross the country to rally support for the NLD for Sunday’s race.

The NLD fielded a candidate for every seat, with Suu Kyi representing Kawhmu, south of the former capital city of Yangon. She ran against a former military doctor.

The government promised the vote would be free and fair and allowed international observers to monitor the polling.

Analysts said the sheer number and spread of polling booths across the country would make it impossible for international monitors to ensure an honest count.

Ahead of the election, Suu Kyi alleged there had been voting irregularities, illegal activities and intimidation either committed or encouraged by official entities.

Sunday, Win, the NLD spokesman, said the party had received more than 50 reports of voting irregularities.

In one area, ballot sheets had wax placed over the check box for the NLD, making it easier to erase the mark later and annul the vote, he said. In another area, ballots were found that had already been filled out, he said.

Election Comission Chairman Tin Aye said he hoped the elections were fair but couldn’t speak to the allegations of irregularities.

“It’s too soon to say,” he said.

Still, Suu Kyi hoped her party would win as many parliamentary seats as possible.

Myanmar’s legislature has 664 seats, more than 80% of which are still held by lawmakers aligned with the military-backed ruling party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The 45 seats under contention are vacancies created by the promotion of parliamentarians to the Cabinet and other posts last year.

Still, the election is an opportunity for voters to weigh in during a time of enormous change in Myanmar, a country also known as Burma.

Analysts said it would be the first real test of the government’s commitment to transition from military rule.

Two years ago, it staged a general election that was widely derided as a sham.

Several former military leaders formed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) at the time to contest the election. Suu Kyi’s party boycotted it.

After attracting international condemnation for manipulating the voting process in the 2010 race, Myanmar’s leaders know that a fair election will be proof to the world that it can conduct a legitimate vote, experts said.

“It’s hugely important and it will provide a new semi-democratic political system with an opportunity to show that it has ambition to become more transparent, more inclusive and thus more democratic,” said Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at the Australian National University, about Sunday’s race.

In the past 12 months, the country pardoned hundreds of political prisoners, secured a cease-fire with Karen rebels and agreed to negotiate with other ethnic rebel groups. Freer press rules have encouraged the proliferation of journals and magazines.

Myanmar’s efforts to thaw its frosty relations with the rest of the world have been warmly welcomed and rewarded. In recent months, a steady procession of foreign ministers has visited the country and, in February, the European Union lifted a travel ban on Myanmar officials.

There have been hints, too, that a free and fair vote on Sunday will lead to the relatively swift unraveling of sanctions that have long choked the country’s economy.

Thousands of Burmese living in exile around the world were watching the election for a clear sign that it is safe to return home.

Young voters in Myanmar appeared to be particularly excited about the polling.

Just the sight of Suu Kyi brazenly pitching her policies to huge crowds of people emboldened many to dare to believe that democracy might be possible.

“I am so happy and proud of voting freely,” said Ung Sann, 30, on Sunday. “I believe the government will change toward democracy.”

Analysts said Suu Kyi is all but guaranteed to win her seat.

“It would be a major shock if she did not win her own seat. But I think we have to prepare people for the expectations that the NLD will not win all seats in the by-election,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, a project director at International Crisis Group.

Others said the number of seats won by the NLD is less critical than what the vote says about Myanmar’s future.

“I don’t think it matters how many seats the NLD wins. I think the only thing that really matters (is) whether it’s free or fair. I don’t think the people of Burma care about how many seats the NLD wins either. What they want to know is whether the next set of elections, the national elections (expected in 2015), are also going to be free and fair,” said Monique Skidmore, of the University of Canberra.

The daughter of Gen. Aung San, a hero of Burmese independence, Suu Kyi herself became an inspiration with her long struggle for democracy in the country.

As a member of parliament, Suu Kyi would be expected to be free to travel outside Myanmar — and more importantly to return — something that wasn’t possible during her long years of repression and confinement.

She told hundreds of journalists gathered outside her residence Friday that she didn’t plan to become a minister in the military-backed civilian government, if a position was offered to her. Under Myanmar’s constitution, lawmakers can’t hold ministerial office.

Asked where she would place Myanmar’s democracy on a scale of one to 10, Suu Kyi said, “We’re trying to get to one.”

March 27, 2012

Burma Analysis: West waits on Myanmar vote to start sanctions scale-back

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Myanmar's army chief General Min Aung Hlaing salutes during a ceremony to mark the 67th anniversary of Armed Forces Day in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw March 27, 2012. The event commemorates the Burmese army's rising up against Japanese occupiers in 1945. REUTERS-Soe Zeya Tun

By Martin Petty

BANGKOK | Tue Mar 27, 2012 3:28am EDT

(Reuters) – Western countries desperately want Myanmar’s by-elections on Sunday to go smoothly – and give opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi a seat in parliament – so they can start to lift sanctions and let their companies invest in the once-isolated state.

Myanmar’s civilian rulers have astonished with a reform drive since taking office a year ago, freeing hundreds of political prisoners jailed by the former junta, holding peace talks with ethnic militias and opening up the economy.

Western companies are lining up to get into the country, sandwiched between China and India and offering huge potential in energy, financial services, telecoms and tourism.

Diplomats say some U.S. restrictions such as visa bans and asset freezes could be lifted quickly if the election is credible, and the European Union may end sanctions that ban investment in timber and the mining of gemstones and metals.

But the ballot needs the thumbs-up from the 66-year-old Suu Kyi, who is contesting one of 45 parliamentary seats after two decades in the political wilderness, much of it under house arrest.

“If Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition basically give their blessing that the April 1 elections are ‘good enough’, there will be some sort of positive, reciprocal action on the part of the U.S. government,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma.

The EU, Canada and Australia have hinted they will do the same. In a visit to Cambodia on Monday, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said its embargoes would be scaled back in stages, but he emphasized that “each removal of sanctions will be after consultation with the opposition”.

But Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has a dilemma of her own. If she disputes the election result, even for valid reasons, and sanctions remain in force, some analysts say it could dent her image among millions of Burmese longing for change.

“(Suu Kyi) views sanctions as leverage to get what she wants from the government. That is a very dangerous policy,” said David Steinberg, a veteran Myanmar analyst at Washington’s Georgetown University and a critic of the sanctions.

“Why? Because it puts her in the position of being perceived to be in favor of poverty. Not that she is, but … that could hurt her.”

There are bound to be complaints come election day. After 49 years of isolation and army rule, Myanmar has limited experience of holding ballots. And a 2010 general election was widely seen as rigged to favor the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), now by far the biggest in parliament.

Most diplomats believe Myanmar’s rulers are sincere: they want Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party on board to add legitimacy to parliament.

But the NLD has already laid the grounds for a possible dispute of the result, with allegations of vote-buying and the inclusion of dead people on voters’ lists, plus claims the president, who is supposed to be impartial, has tried to influence the vote.

The government has not done itself any favors by not allowing a proper monitoring mission. Last week it belatedly invited a team of five Southeast Asian observers and asked the United States, the EU and others to send in two people each.


Regardless of the outcome, it is unclear how quickly sanctions could be lifted. It is impossible to scrap them all at once, frustrating Western investors who face a race against time as Asian firms snap up deals and business delegations pour into the country to scope out opportunities.

The EU is well placed to relax its curbs on investment sooner than Washington as most of its “restrictive measures”, which also include asset freezes, are up for review on April 23.

According to several diplomats from EU member states, those sanctions might be removed with a simple vote by the EU Foreign Affairs Council, as long as the election is deemed credible and Suu Kyi gives her blessing.

What will remain is its arms embargo and its trade measures, which exclude Myanmar from the EU’s Generalized System of Preferences for poorer countries, including tariff-free imports under the “Everything But Arms” initiative. Reversing that is complex and could take at least a year, some diplomats say.

Canada might also start to scale back sanctions if the poll is fair, a government official told Reuters. It bans trade and investment in the country by Canadian firms and denies Myanmar access to low tariffs, development aid and financial services.


That could leave Washington playing catch-up. Its complex, overlapping web of sanctions would be extremely difficult to undo quickly, even though lawmakers say there is bipartisan support in Congress to move ahead on that.

U.S. sanctions are governed by five federal laws and four presidential executive orders issued between 1990 and 2008, each with different, or unspecified, expiry dates and conditions for lifting.

Myanmar may have already met some of the conditions, such as engaging with the opposition and progress on media freedom.

But some laws require the release of all political prisoners, when no one really knows how many are still detained, or stipulate the U.S. president has to be satisfied Myanmar, the world’s second-largest opium grower, is no longer “a country of interest for narcotics trafficking”.

All this, economists say, does not bode well for the United States, which wants to offset China’s influence on Myanmar and has companies chomping at the bit to invest.

“Keeping ourselves completely out of the trade and investment arena while everyone else is jumping in wouldn’t necessarily be positioning the U.S. where we want to be,” said Bradley Babson, a retired World Bank official and expert on Myanmar’s economy.

“Now what they’ve got is a very complicated, multi-layered structure of legal things, and peeling that onion — even if there’s a shift in policy — just the mechanics of undoing it all mean it is going to take time.”

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington, David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels and Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh; Editing by Alan Raybould and Jonathan Thatcher)

March 5, 2012

Freedom bitter-sweet for Myanmar activist

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By Felipe Villamor (AFP)

Ko Ko Gyi said he and other prominent former student leaders would give their full support to Aung San Suu Kyi (AFP/File)

YANGON — For veteran dissident Ko Ko Gyi, freedom after almost two decades behind bars has brought guarded optimism about Myanmar’s future, and no thoughts of revenge against the regime.

The former student activist, one of hundreds of political prisoners released in January in the country formerly known as Burma, said that he was ready for reconciliation if the quasi-civilian government continues its reforms.

“We had a bitter experience for a very long time, but we can forgive, not only myself, but also my comrades,” he told AFP in an interview.

“We do not want to dwell on the past, but instead face the brighter future… It is not going to be easy to forget, and we say that if we have to engage in politics the time is now, not in the past.”

Ko Ko Gyi said he and other prominent former student leaders who were at the vanguard of a failed 1988 uprising would give their full support to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is standing for a seat in parliament for the first time in April 1 by-elections, as well as to a new generation of activists.

“There is now a change of guard on the streets from us to the younger generation,” he said.

“I am now 50 for example. I am now more engaged in politics in this democratic space, but we welcome the involvement of more and more younger students to this cause.”

He said his group would engage with civil society and pointed to the government’s decision last year to halt a Chinese-backed mega-dam in response to public opposition as an example of the potential of people power.

But more than a month after he was freed along with hundreds of other political detainees, Ko Ko Gyi said he had yet to enjoy true liberty.

“Freedom? There is no new freedom. Sometimes they are still watching,” he said at his home in Yangon, referring to intelligence agents in civilian clothes he believes have been assigned to watch him.

Ko Ko Gyi lost the best years of his youth in jail, and has seen many of his fellow activists succumb to both physical and mental torture.

He hides his pain beneath an easy smile and a piercing set of eyes that quickly spot even the smallest of movements, a typical trait among those who have spent many years in detention.

“The images still reflect in my mind. I hear prison voices in my head, and I still hear the clanging of cell doors in the morning and in the evening,” he said.

As vice-president of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, Ko Ko Gyi was one of the most prominent activists who stood up to the junta in 1988.

The military brutally crushed the peaceful protests, leaving thousands of people dead.

Ko Ko Gyi was detained for 44 days the following year for his role in the rallies. He was arrested again in 1991 for his activism and sentenced to two decades in jail with hard labour.

He was released after more than 13 years behind bars, but was detained again in 2007 for supporting the “Saffron Revolution” monk-led protests the same year, which also triggered a bloody military crackdown.

Fellow student leader Min Ko Naing, who headed the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, was jailed for 16 years over the 1988 protests. He was also arrested in 2007 and freed in January this year.

Ko Ko Gyi said he and his colleagues were routinely tortured, but what hurt more was not knowing when he would see his family and friends again, and watching fellow activists lose their minds while in prison.

His parents died one after the other while he was locked up, leaving his younger brother to support the family financially while he languished in jail.

“I am single. I have never married because there was no time to find a suitable partner or to get married. I lost my youth,” he said.

Ko Ko Gyi said compared with many of those imprisoned for criminal offences, the political detainees were closely watched and were allowed fewer visitors.

But as Myanmar faced tighter international scrutiny over its tentative steps towards reforms, his jailers allowed small concessions, including access to books.

“Inside, my companions were Gandhi and Mandela,” Ko Ko Gyi confided, referring to former South African president and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi.

When he was much younger Ko Ko Gyi was impressed by Cuba’s Fidel Castro and his rebellion launched with only 12 rifles, though he said his own experience had taught him to be more pragmatic.

The release of Ko Ko Gyi and other political prisoners is part of a raft of reforms by the regime that has included allowing Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to return to mainstream politics and giving more freedom to the media.

He said that while the number of seats at stake in the April polls, 48, was not enough to change the balance of power in parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi’s inclusion — if she wins a seat as widely expected — would be significant.

“Aung San Suu Kyi’s voice is not the same as the others. It carries a heavier weight… So we believe she can represent in the parliament on behalf of the democratic groups.”

Ko Ko Gyi feels that while change is in the air, the reforms have yet to be felt by ordinary people, and are in part driven by a desire by the regime to improve ties with the West and attract more investment and tourists.

“When I was freed from prison in January, there were so many flash bulbs and so many young journalists who surrounded us. This was a strange situation, and I have never been used to being exposed. So yes, there are some changes instituted that we need to recognise,” he said.

“But more needs to be done. There is simply no other choice,” he said, as three police officers walked slowly in front of his house.

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February 4, 2012

Who’s to blame for Burma’s economic misery

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Posted By Min Zin Tuesday, January 31, 2012 – 10:44 AM

Last week the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released a statement saying that Burma has a chance to become “the next economic frontier in Asia.” But the IMF went on to note that the country can realize its potential only “if it can turn its rich natural resources, young labor force, and proximity to some of the most dynamic economies in the world” to its advantage.

In a word, it’s up to the government.

Contrary to what you might think from the headlines, it’s not western sanctions that are causing Burma’s economic woes. It’s government policy. The Burmese government’s Industry Minister, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, admitted as much when he responded to a journalist who asked whether the country has done enough to get U.S. sanctions lifted: “We have a lot of things to reform and lots of things have to change: laws, regulations and institutions, not only in the political sector but also in the economic sectors. But sanctions are up to them.”

In 2004, the well-known U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote that sanctions against Burma had “systematically weakened the economy by limiting trade, investment and foreign aid.” It’s an argument that many critics of sanctions have made.

The media love to use terms like “pariah,” “isolated,” and “closed” whenever they describe Burma and the effects of sanctions on the country.

If the term “pariah” denotes a country that utterly disregards international norms and behavior, and correspondingly meets with unrelenting censure from the international community, then that’s a pretty good fit for Burma. But when the word is used in a way that’s supposed to characterize the country’s overall economic position (invariably in combination with words like “closed” and “isolated”), then it doesn’t describe the situation at all.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2010 Burma’s exports and imports stood at $8.7 billion and $4.9 billion respectively. That’s higher than the data for some of the comparable members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), such as Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, many experts caution that the official figures for Burma’s exports fall far short of the real numbers because they don’t cover the value of timber, gems, narcotics, rice, and other products smuggled to neighboring countries.

As far as foreign direct investment (FDI) is concerned, Burma reached a record high in 2010-11 of almost $20 billion. That’s more than the figure in the same year for Southeast Asia’s latest investment darling, Vietnam.

These facts suggest that Burma’s exposure to trade and FDI is higher today than ever before, and even higher than that of some comparable ASEAN countries. In this light it becomes extremely hard to argue that sanctions have deprived Burma of FDI and trade, much less that Burma is “isolated” or “closed.” (This also offers an eloquent commentary on how ineffective the sanctions regime has actually been.)

Of course, sanctions do have negative effects on the economy (for instance, job losses in garment industry after the 2003 sanctions imposed by the U.S.), and there are many spillovers to other sectors, ranging from education to the growth of civil society. But the government cannot use sanctions as an excuse for its mismanagement and kleptocratic corruption.

Given this extent of economic involvement with the outside world, Burma should boast a good growth rate and corresponding improvements in the lives of its citizens. But the socioeconomic indicators tell a different story. For instance, since 1988 Burma’s GDP has grown at an annual average rate of 2.9 percent, the lowest in the Greater Mekong Subregion. The 2010 UNDP Human Development Index ranked Burma 132 out of 169 countries. The country is the lowest in Southeast Asia (Laos and Cambodia ranked 122 and 124 respectively). What’s wrong with this picture?

The problems are twofold. First, the regime has tailored trade liberalization policy to benefit the natural resource extraction sector. The FDI that has come into the country has also focused on natural resource extraction and hydropower. Agriculture and manufacturing received a mere one percent of FDI because of the many problems that plague these sectors, including poor infrastructure, unfavorable exchange rates, electricity shortages, the lack of skilled workers, and so on and so forth. Since the natural resource extraction sector is capital intensive, most of the benefits go to those who own the capital. And that means the military conglomerates, which control almost all the capital in a society that is starved of private capital. As result, the distribution of income is highly uneven. The military takes the biggest share and most of the population never sees any benefit.

Second, the regime does not re-invest that revenue in education, health care, or necessary infrastructure. Instead, for example, it has plowed money into building the wasteful new capital Naypyidaw at a cost of about 1 to 2 percent of GDP, according to the IMF. By the government’s own official statistics, it allocated 23.6 percent ($2 billion) of the 2011 budget to military spending, while the country spends a mere 1.3 percent on health ($110 million) and 4.13 percent ($349 million) on education. Some experts estimate that actual military spending amounts to as much as 60 percent of the overall budget. No wonder the country is mired in poverty.

The IMF’s statement calls on the Burmese government to use revenues from natural resources “to build human capital and infrastructure.” The Fund describes these as the “key priorities to alleviate poverty and reduce bottlenecks to industrialization.”

Burma’s third session of Parliament, which opened last Thursday in Naypyidaw, is now set to discuss the budget for the 2012/2013 fiscal year. This will be a litmus test for the new pseudo-civilian government. We will soon see whether it is willing to “redefine national spending priorities and bring fiscal transparency,” as the IMF suggests, or whether, instead, everything stays the way it’s been until now.

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