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Cablegate: Burma: The Economics of Water Festival

VZCZCXRO4373
RR RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH RUEHTRO
DE RUEHGO #0277/01 1131003
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 221003Z APR 08
FM AMEMBASSY RANGOON
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 7408
RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE
RUEHGG/UN SECURITY COUNCIL COLLECTIVE
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 1810
RUEHBY/AMEMBASSY CANBERRA 1061
RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA 4819
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 4609
RUEHUL/AMEMBASSY SEOUL 8149
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 5710
RUEHCN/AMCONSUL CHENGDU 1413
RUEHCHI/AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI 1503
RUEHCI/AMCONSUL KOLKATA 0271
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA 3606
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 1464
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS
RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHDC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 RANGOON 000277

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, EEB/IFD/ODF
PACOM FOR FPA
TREASURY FOR OASIA:SCHUN

E.O. 12958:N/A
TAGS: ECON EFIN PREL BM
SUBJECT: BURMA: THE ECONOMICS OF WATER FESTIVAL

RANGOON 00000277 001.2 OF 003


1. (SBU) Summary. Burmese Water Festival is the one time of year
when the Burmese are able to relax and have a good time with little
fear of government repression. The Burmese save their money all
year for this holiday, and may spend between 10,000 to 100,000 kyat
(approximately $10-100) to participate in the five-day festivities.
Economic analysts agreed that the holiday is good for Burma's
economy, as day laborers find work constructing wooden stages or
pandals for water throwing events, car owners earn money by renting
cars to revelers, and food hawkers are able to sell their goods to
the masses celebrating in the streets. However, economists pointed
out that due to higher prices for food and transportation, coupled
with Burma's weakening economy, this year's Water Festival, which
occurred April 11-17, was likely not as successful for the pandal
operators as in previous years. Construction workers and food
hawkers were the real economic winners during this Water Festival
period. The fact that many Burmese were willing to spend the
equivalent of two months' salary shows what they would do to escape
the realities of living under the repressive Than Shwe regime. End
Summary.

A Time for Fun
--------------

2. (U) Burmese Water Festival or Thin Gyan, the country's most
famous holiday, is a time when Burmese people can relax and enjoy
themselves with little threat of government retribution. During the
week-long holiday, which occurred from April 11-17, stores, offices,
and restaurants closed, allowing the Burmese to enjoy the
festivities. While some Burmese went on pilgrimages to their
favorite pagodas, most participated in the traditional water
throwing events. In Burma, throwing water on someone cleanses the
soul before Buddhist New Year. However, throwing water is a
misnomer. The Burmese take Water Festival to new heights,
constructing wooden stalls with water cannons and spray fire hoses
so that participants can hose down anyone close by. For six days,
the Burmese crowd the streets, riding around in open cars, climbing
up on stages, and dousing their friends with water.

Let the Construction Begin
--------------------------

3. (U) During the week before Water Festival, we witnessed intense
preparations throughout Rangoon for the pending holiday. This year,
the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), the government
organization responsible for city development and management, issued
approximately 250 licenses for the construction of pandals, or
wooden stages for water throwing - a decrease of 12 percent from
last year. According to former Yangon City Development Committee
(YCDC) Water Festival Organizer Pauk Pauk, persons interested in
building a pandal had to submit building plans and requests to YCDC
in March and pay a license fee of between 60,000-200,000 kyat
($60-$200), depending on the size of the pandal. He admitted that
YCDC officials tended to grant licenses to their friends and those
connected to the government, who in turn resold their licenses for
between 1.5 million and 3 million kyat ($1,500-$3,000), earning a
profit of up to 1400 percent. Organizers of the BANZAI pandal
informed us that they paid 3 million kyat for their license, which
allowed them to construct a 45' by 30' wooden stage, complete with
four water pumps and generators. The YCDC official they bought the
license from earned 1.5 million kyat in profit.

4. (SBU) Despite the high cost of the construction license, raw
materials, and labor fees - averaging 15 million kyat ($15,000),
most pandal organizers make a profit, Pauk Pauk observed. The
biggest pandals obtain sponsorship from prominent local businesses,
such as Myanmar Beer, Alpine Water, or Air Bagan, which allows the
operator to recoup some of the costs. Ye Lwin, former organizer of
the Alpine pandal, explained that Alpine pays 2 million kyat

RANGOON 00000277 002.2 OF 003


($2,000) for sponsorship. Sponsorship also helps attract bands and
entertainers to the pandal, which in turn increases the number of
Burmese that want to participate in the pandal's activities. The
cost of standing on a pandal and using the water hoses to spray
revelers runs between 10,000 kyat a day to 80,000 kyat a day. Some
pandals offered discount tickets, enabling people to participate in
pandal activities for multiple days. Selling tickets is the best
way to recoup money, Ye Lwin declared. In 2008, the largest
pandals, which charged an average of 45,000 kyat a day, sold more
than 300 tickets for each day, bringing in an estimated profit of
more 65 million kyat ($65,000) for five days.

5. (SBU) Construction of a pandal takes up to ten days, and pandal
organizers tend to hire day laborers from the poorer areas of
Rangoon (Hlainthaya, Shwepyitha, and Thaketa). The BANZAI pandal
organizers told us on April 9 that approximately 4,000 day laborers
found work immediately before Water Festival, earning between 1,500
and 3,000 kyat a day - the bigger pandals with sponsorship paid more
than the smaller pandals. Most pandal organizers provided
transportation for the day laborers, as well as some meals.
However, laborers worked for up to 18 hours a day and construction
often continued well into the night.

6. (SBU) Local car dealers and car owners also profit from Water
Festival, Pauk Pauk stated. The Burmese who could not afford to
stand on pandals and spray water often traveled around the city in
cars or trucks to be sprayed. In the weeks before Water Festival,
we saw local car owners repairing and maintaining their vehicles,
while others were advertising jeep rentals at approximately 100,000
kyat ($100) a day. During conversations with Burmese who rented
cars this year, we learned that the cost of rentals was
approximately 15 percent higher than last year. Due to higher
rental and gas prices (approximately 5,000 kyat or $5 a gallon on
the black market), the number of car and jeep rentals was likely
lower than last year, Pauk Pauk opined. Indeed, we saw many Burmese
traveling around Rangoon in large trucks, which charged 3,000 kyat a
day and held up to 25 people.

7. (SBU) In addition to granting permits for construction, YCDC
also sells permits for hawkers to set up food stalls close to the
pandals. Pauk Pauk explained that the permits were relatively
inexpensive, only 10,000 kyat ($10) for the entire Water Festival
period. Unlike the pandal construction licenses, YCDC did not limit
the number of food stall permits issued in 2008. In the past, food
sellers earned a profit during Water Festival, Ye Lwin noted. This
year was no different, as several hawkers stationed around Inya Lake
(the most popular area for water throwing) told us they earned up to
25,000 kyat ($25) a day selling food and drinks to construction
crews and revelers. Hawkers who sold food during Water Festival and
the 10 days leading up to the holiday likely earned more than
300,000 kyat ($300) for the period, although this amount was likely
less than last year's profits, Ye Lwin stated.

The Event of the Season
-----------------------

8. (SBU) Many of the Burmese people we spoke to, particularly the
younger generation, told us that they waited all year for Water
Festival, saving their money so they could have a good time.
Renting a car or riding around on a truck is the most inexpensive
way to enjoy Water Festival, several enthusiasts told us. Riding in
a truck can cost at least 15,000 kyat for the five-day period, while
car rental costs depend on how many people fit into the jeep, they
noted. Participating in pandal activities is more expensive and
more prestigious. A Burmese person who purchases a multi-use ticket
for a small pandal can spend up to 75,000 kyat ($75) for the
five-day period, almost three times the average monthly wage. Those
with higher disposable incomes may pay much more.

RANGOON 00000277 003.2 OF 003

9. (SBU) In general, the high costs of participation do not deter
the Burmese, and those who cannot afford Water Festival look for
ways to borrow or earn the money before the festivities begin.
Several participants told us that they took on extra work, including
construction or delivery work, to earn enough money for Water
Festival. Others told us that they borrowed money from friends and
family members so they could play. Water Festival is the most
important time of the year and the only chance to enjoy themselves,
they explained. Thus, they would do what they could to
participate.

As Profitable as Last Year?
---------------------------

10. (SBU) While there are no official figures on the profits and
losses of Water Festival, several of our economic contacts opined
that this year's festivities were not as profitable as previous
years. Burma's floundering economy, coupled by high costs of
commodities and fuel, meant that people had less disposable income,
Professor U Maw Than of the Rangoon Institute of Economics
explained. Indeed, while there were many people out in the streets,
fewer people participated in pandal activities, several organizers
complained to us. Still, the organizers we talked to were confident
that they made a profit, although not as much as last year. YCDC
earned less from selling licenses, since they sold approximately 35
fewer licenses than last year. Day laborers and food stall
operators, who generally earn $1 a day during the rest of the year,
were the real winners, U Maw Than pointed out.

Comment
-------

11. (SBU) Water Festival is the one time of the year that the
Burmese people can escape from the repressive reality of living
under the Than Shwe regime. The fact that many Burmese will spend
an enormous amount of their yearly income - at least two month's
salary - shows that they will go to great lengths to forget, even
for five days, their current troubles. The regime benefits as well
by letting people spray away their frustrations.

VILLAROSA

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