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Devotees pray at Myanmar's holiest Buddhist site, the Shweddagon Pagoda in Rangoon. (Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail/Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail)
Devotees pray at Myanmar's holiest Buddhist site, the Shweddagon Pagoda in Rangoon. (Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail/Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail)

Mark MacKinnon

Myanmar: Where the generals play and the people pay Add to ...

The Rangoon Auto Salon is pulsing. Three dozen of Myanmar's rich and powerful have put their muscle cars and SUVs on display for the invitation-only event, held outside a nightclub where a bottle of foreign liquor costs more than the average monthly salary.

As night falls, the city's young and beautiful come to gawk at the automobiles and drink and dance in a parking lot lit by their headlights.

My invitation came from a slickly dressed, 27-year-old, Australian-educated Myanmarese who introduced himself as Neil at another nightclub two nights earlier. Throwing his arm around my shoulders and pouring me a large glass of Raspberry Absolut Vodka from the bottle on his reserved table at the edge of the dance floor, he promised that he could get me "anything I want."

"Pick any girl here," he said. "I can give her to you." He had ecstasy too, at $5 a pill.

The auto show is fenced off and access is strictly controlled to keep the peering masses - most of whom get around either on bicycles or ancient Toyotas and Ladas held together by electric tape and hope - away from the gleaming Land Cruisers and Mercedes. Young women in tight, red bodysuits look somewhere between bored and angry as they lean on the vehicles for the benefit of the car aficionados' cameras.

Owning one of these vehicles is a declaration that you come from the tiny clique that is the sanctions-busting elite in the country formerly known as Burma - either rich enough to afford to get around the rules or powerful enough not to need to.

The street price of a new Land Cruiser with all the "transaction fees" paid (the costs of importing the vehicle, in violation of sanctions, and paying for it via accounts in other countries) is in the neighbourhood of $160,000, more than double the sticker price in Canada.

The utility of the sanctions that Canada, the United States, the European Union and Australia have imposed since 1988 is now coming into question. Myanmar is deeply mired in poverty, with its military rulers arguably just as entrenched now as they were 23 years ago.

Even the leader of the country's pro-democracy movement, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has in the past wondered aloud whether the trade and travel restrictions imposed to help her cause haven't done more harm than good - although she's standing by them for now, as she proved in an interview with me on Friday. (See sidebar.)

What is clear is that a clutch of generals, oligarchs and their children have become wildly rich.

On the edge of Rangoon, a sprawling 18-hole golf course with two stucco-walled clubhouses and a matching private hospital sits cheek to jowl with a slum of homes made of thatched wood and corrugated tin. Walls have been erected to spare golfers the sight of the poverty next door.

About 400 kilometres to the north, Naypyidaw, the generals' new capital, is still under construction on previously deserted scrubland. The junta has never said how much it expected to spend building the city, now home to an estimated 900,000 people, though far fewer seem actually to live there.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that 1 to 2 per cent of the country's gross domestic product has been spent on Naypyidaw each year since construction began in 2005. In contrast, this country - gripped by high rates of malaria, HIV/AIDS and dengue fever - dedicates just 0.5 per cent to its battered and dysfunctional health-care system.

Such grim statistics are plentiful. Myanmar is ranked the second most-corrupt country in the world, better than only Somalia. Among Asian countries, only Afghanistan is poorer on a per-capita basis. Once the world's top exporter of rice, Myanmar is now fighting an annual battle to avoid food shortages. More than 10 per cent of children die before the age of 5.

The situation is worsened by what one aid worker recently called an informal "aid boycott" by Western countries, with Canada among the most reticent to give, despite Myanmar's multitude of humanitarian needs.

Remembering when sanctions were romantic - and effective

It's startling to find myself here, questioning sanctions now, since as a teenager in the distant suburbs of Ottawa I was militant about the need to fight the military government in the country I knew as Burma.

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