Mong Palatino

Blogging about the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific since 2004


@mongster is a Manila-based activist, former Philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of Asia-Pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Finance issued a press statement claiming that the small Southeast Asian nation is already among the richest countries in the world. It cited a report of the Global Finance magazine which ranked Timor-Leste’s GDP per capita on a purchasing power parity basis as the 87th highest in the world. The global survey involved 184 countries. In Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste ranked fifth behind Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Global Finance also factored the relative cost of living and the inflation rates of countries. It used figures from the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database for April 2013

But La’o Hamutuk, a non-government organization, made a simple fact-checking and discovered that the statistics used for Timor-Leste were already outdated. It made reference to the latest IMF World Economic Outlook published in April 2015 which gave Timor-Leste a rank of 122nd (not 87th) in the world in 2013. Furthermore, the country’s ranking is expected to decline by six places in 2014.

“We all wish that Timor-Leste’s people were less poor, but wishing doesn’t make it so. We encourage policy-makers to base their decisions on evidence, and not to believe their own public relations. It will take smart thinking and hard work to bring Timor-Leste out of poverty,” La’o Hamutuk wrote on its website.

The group added that using the GDP to measure the country’s wealth is not consistently reliable. “The citizens of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste – especially impoverished rural residents whose lives are not reflected in these statistics – deserve better,” it reminded the government.

For many years, La’o Hamutuk and even foreign analysts have been urging Timor-Leste to diversify its economy, which is mainly dependent on petroleum exports. For its part, the government acknowledged the need to invest in other sectors and has committed to embark on non-oil ventures by realigning its state budget priorities.

A more detailed review of Timor-Leste’s economy is provided by Pacific Economic Monitor, a magazine of the Asian Development Bank. Its July 2015 issue analyzed the spending of the government, the country’s oil revenues, and consumer spending. It noted that government expenditure continues to be the biggest component of the country’s non-petroleum economy. This year’s government spending is reported to have increased by 33.4 percent. Total spending on public sector wages has risen but expenditures on goods and services and capital investment decreased. The report attributed the decline to the transition in government when a new Prime Minister was sworn into office last February.

The report revealed that the country’s total revenues fell 46.4 percent in the first quarter of 2015. Petroleum revenues declined due to lower global oil prices. Oil production also slowed down. But business activities improved as indicated by rising electricity consumption of the commercial sector, expansion of private sector borrowing, and higher volume of international flights.

The report also highlighted the continuing vulnerability of Timor-Leste to the harsh impact of climate change. It mentioned a 2011 study which estimated that in terms of economic impact, Timor-Leste could lose $5.9 million annually in the next 50 years because of earthquakes and cyclones.

It is clear that Timor-Leste faces various economic challenges – diversifying its economy, raising the productivity of its petroleum sector, collecting more revenues, eradicating poverty, and enhancing climate readiness. The government has the right to make a claim that Timor-Leste is already included in the league of the global rich. But it should not forget that there are serious obstacles to overcome if it wants to remain a wealthy country.

Myanmar’s Ribbon Movements Challenge Militarization

Written for The Diplomat

The appointment of military officers to various civilian agencies is being resisted by some sectors in Myanmar.

Last August, health workers launched a black ribbon movement to protest the entry of 13 military officers into the Ministry of Health. A month later, lawyers and some judges wore yellow ribbons to denounce the deployment of military officers into the Supreme Court.

Early this week, teachers vowed to promote green ribbons as a symbol of defiance against the hiring of army officials by the education ministry. In Mandalay, electrical engineers distributed blue ribbons after vacant technological management posts in the region’s Ministry of Electric Power were reportedly given to senior military officers. Meanwhile, some geologists working in the Ministry of Energy announced the formation of a red ribbon movement to protest the appointment of army personnel in the agency.

Authors and poets who are wary of the creeping militarization of civilian bodies in Myanmar have recently initiated a purple ribbon campaign aimed at stopping the continued nomination of active and retired army officials in various government agencies.

The ribbon movement began in the health sector. The announcement that senior army officials with no medical experience would occupy top positions in the Ministry of Health was widely criticized by doctors and other health professionals. Two days after this was reported in the news, a black ribbon movement emerged enjoining medical professionals to oppose the “military infiltration” of the ministry.

A Facebook page was set up, which quickly became popular. Organizers of the campaign immediately clarified that they are not backed by any political party: “This movement is not initiated, influenced, or encouraged by any political organization. We are simply opposing the dictatorial decision through a non-violent movement,” they said.

They also appealed for public support: “Anyone who would like to oppose the actions of the repressive military government who ignores human rights and the democratic norms of ruling the country based on the aspirations of the people can take part in this movement.”

Responding to the criticism, the ministry vowed that it will no longer accept further nominations from the army.

Inspired by the social media success of the black ribbon movement, a group of lawyers urged the public to tie a yellow ribbon on every court and to “rise up against the militarization of the judiciary.”

High Court lawyer Kyaw Myo Thu explained why his peers are protesting the appointment of former army officers in the judiciary: “We, the lawyers, are also acutely aware that having military superiors influencing from above can disrupt the ability of a civilian judiciary to make decisions freely.”

The campaign reached the townships of Pyinmana, Lewe, Tatkone, Zabuthiri, Ottarathiri, Pobbathiri, Zeyarthiri, and Nay Pyi Taw territorial council. In Pyay, a judge conducted a solo protest against the appointment of army officers in the Supreme Court.

This week, during the World Teachers’ Day celebration on October 5, the Myanmar Teachers’ Union bemoaned the lack of improvements in the education sector. Further, the group also criticized the practice of allotting high-level positions in the education ministry to retired army officers.

“We have nothing to say about those ex-military officers who have already been appointed to administer the education sector but we hope that no more ex-military officers will be appointed in the future,” a teacher said during the launching of the green ribbon campaign.

That army officials are rewarded with juicy appointments in Myanmar’s civilian sector is no longer surprising news. After five decades of military dictatorship, the country’s democratic transition continues to encounter formidable challenges. It seems that old practices die hard.

But the ribbon movements surprised many because these were spearheaded by ordinary citizens who resisted the prerogative of the army to dominate the leadership of various government agencies.

In the case of the black ribbon campaign, it was warmly received by the public, which forced the government to reconsider its appointments. The campaign didn’t dislodge the privilege of the military. But it revealed the insincerity of the military-backed government, which has declared its commitment to pursue democratic reforms.

The world is closely monitoring how Myanmar will conduct its election next month, hoping that it would lead to a more open and inclusive Burmese democracy. But the ribbon campaigns remind us that in order to expand civilian participation in the government, election reforms must be accompanied by bureaucratic adjustments.

On a positive note, the ribbon movements highlight the rise of new citizen groups and formations which are critical of the pronouncements of the government. They pose no threat to the establishment. But they could inspire more people to resist not just the militarization of civilian agencies, but also other privileges that the army has established to maintain its hegemony in Myanmar society.

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