Myanmar's military government has quietly begun what diplomats and businessmen here say is the largest sell-off of state assets in the country's history, including more than 100 government buildings, port facilities and a large stake in the national airline.
The move, which comes as the government prepares to introduce a new constitution and hold elections for the first time since 1990, is being compared by some analysts here to the massive privatisations in Russia after the Communist era.
Myanmar's military junta nationalised most industries when it took power in a 1962 coup and has controlled the lion's share of the economy ever since.
Diplomats and businessmen here speculate that the across-the-board sell-off is intended to build up cash for the ruling generals to finance election campaigns and possibly pay for future salary increases for government employees and other populist measures. Many of the assets are being sold to businessmen allied with the military, reinforcing the strength of a class of oligarchs. The privatisations could also have the effect of helping the moribund economy by injecting competition into what is an almost Soviet-style economic system.
The assets that have been sold or are for sale include the country's fuel import and distribution network, gem and tin mines, farmland and factories, according to businessmen who have seen announcements of the sales.
The government has put out word that it is selling factories producing soft drinks, cigarettes and bicycles, among other commercial goods, according to U Phone Win, the head of a non-profit organisation. Most of the sales have been announced to small groups of businessmen, and the news is spreading by word of mouth. The government is also opening the healthcare and education sectors to private enterprise, he said, issuing licences for the first time for private hospitals and schools.
The country's Privatisation Commission recently produced a list of 176 assets in Yangon, to be auctioned off sometime over the next few weeks. The 18-page list, which was shown to prospective buyers and which a businessman made available to the International Herald Tribune, includes a wide-ranging roster of buildings in Yangon worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Many former government offices, abandoned when the capital was moved to Naypyidaw in 2005, are included.
In recent weeks, the military has entered what appears to be full campaign mode. The state-run media runs articles daily about generals' inaugurating roads, railways, bridges and hydroelectric dams.
"It's a completely different environment from a few years ago," said Mr Steve Marshall, the head of the International Labour Organisation office here. "There is very much more acceptance for the need to work together. They want to be seen as a professional military." NYT