SOCIETY, RICH CRONIES AND POVERTY IN MYANMAR

SOCIETY IN MYANMAR

Burma-Myanmar has feudal traditions, Buddhist traditions, democratic traditions but no caste system. According to the Joshua Project: “The single most important social institution in the village is the temple. It symbolizes unity among the villagers, and provides a wide variety of activities for the people. The Burmese do not recognize clans or lineages. Marriages are monogamous, and rarely arranged by the parents

According to Countries and Their Cultures: “Not only is poverty widespread, there is marked inequality. Essentially, the society is divided into a tiny elite, a fairly small middle class, and a large number of very poor people. While there are traditional elites within most of the ethnic groups and new elites in some groups whose wealth comes from smuggling, the national elite is overwhelmingly Burmese. In recent years income from the narcotics trade has been an important source of wealth for members of the elite. Although some segments of the middle class have prospered from the economic reforms of the late 1980s, most have not done well and remain poor. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]

The middle class is increasingly becoming more political involved. "In Burma, the middle class is very thin," said a 38-year-old graphic designer who in 2004 helped found an undercover nonprofit group that recruits potential political leaders, told the Washington Post. "We need to grow, strengthen that. Most democratic countries have a broader middle class. It is the only way to go forward."

See Repression

Rich in Myanmar

Many of those who are considered rich in Myanmar are either connected with the military regime or have connections to the drug trade or gem and timber smuggling enterprises. The most visible are ethnic Chinese and the sons and daughters of the military elite. Some or Myanmar’s elite live in white concrete and glass, neo-Thai mansions outside of Mandalay. The Rangoon elite have traditionally lived around the lake Aung San Suu Kyi lives on central Yangon.

A diplomat told Newsweek, “It’s tale of two nations. The elite live in the First World of Rolexes, Land Rovers and gold rings. The rest live in the ‘Third World.’”

Life of Myanmar’s Generals

The military leaders live in isolated compounds with schools, hospitals and housing that are much better than those of ordinary Burmese. The expensive villas of the top officers have satellite dishes, huge lawns, polished teak floors, high ceilings and gorgeous gardens. These officers drive fancy cars, eat sandwiches with the crust cut off delivered by servants, and spend their time playing golf. Before the their new capital in Naypyidaw they like to play at the Yangon City Golf Resort, where the membership in the 1990s was $3,000 (20 times Myanmar's per capita income at that time).

The generals enjoy things—such as cell phones, computers, air conditioners, Rolexes and Land Rovers—that not every one else in Myanmar has access to. They always have electricity and water unlike the rest of the country which often receives these services only a few hours a day. In 1997, the military paid $.15 a gallon for gasoline while ordinary people paid $1.75.

The children of the generals have become Myanmar's spoiled elite. They wear expensive hip-hop fashions, dance to rap and techno music, drink $3 beers at the Yangon's Galaxy disco and watch bootleg DVDs of Titanic or Star Wars: the Phantom Menace . The irony of all this is that ordinary Burmese are denied these things because they are regarded as too Western and decadent.

Many of the homes and offices of the ruling generals in Myanmar have teak-paneled reception rooms, teak-paneled bedrooms, and teak-paneled hideaway bars.

The generals in the military regime love to play golf. They play on courses built when the British controlled the country and on a few new ones built by businessmen with connections to the generals. Brook Larimer wrote in Newsweek: “Every mourning at the City Golf Course n Rangoon, dozens of military officers in creased khakis and saddle shoes traips off the first tee, followed by platoons of young female caddies. The girls, who wear bright red lipstick and easy smiles, perform different jobs for their 35-cent fee: one hauls the clubs, another holds the parasol, one lines up the putts—and all applaud politely after each successful shot.”

See Separate Article MILITARY RULE AND MYANMAR’S SUPERSTITIOUS, HIGH-LIVING AND PARANOID GENERALS

Hill Station for the Generals

The two military academies in Pin U Lain, a new town built from scratch near the British hill station Maymo, have new buildings and young cadets walk about in sharp uniforms. The golf course has a helipad.

Describing Pin U Lain, Bertil Lintner wrote in the Washington Post, “Built in the lush hills northeast of Mandalay, the new town is a kind of refuge -- but for the Burmese military. Instead of the British Victorian-style mansions of the old Maymyo, you'll find gaudy luxury villas in the new one. The town is also home to the Defense Services Academy, Burma's West Point, which trained many of the generals. [Source: Bertil Lintner, Washington Post, September 30, 2007 \>

“When construction on the officers' town began in late 2005, the Irrawaddy, a magazine published by Burmese exiles in Thailand, reported that "no expense has been spared to allow the generals to live in what basically is a resort, complete with an artificial beach and a man-made stretch of water to lap onto it." The theme-park retreat will also include replicas of a famous pagoda in Rangoon, the old royal palace in Mandalay and a popular beach resort -- which, the magazine dryly noted, "is probably where the fake beach comes in." \>

Thanks to a newly upgraded airport, the retreat is a quick plane ride to Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw, built in the wasteland and jungle 200 miles north of the old capital, Rangoon. Naypyidaw means "Abode of Kings," and kings are precisely what the Burmese generals see themselves as. On the capital's parade ground stand newly erected, larger-than-life statues of three famous pre-colonial warrior kings whom the junta's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, sees as his role models. \>

See Separate Article on Naypyidaw

Than Shwe’s Daughter’s Lavish Wedding

One of Than Shwe’s few trips outside the capital was to his daughter's wedding in Yangon, in 2006. The event angered many Burmese because it cost $300,000 and the couple received wedding gifts worth $50 million, according to The Irrawaddy. Michael Casey of Associated Press wrote: Than Shwe’s “government suffered a rare paparazzi-style scandal, when a 10-minute video clip, filmed at the wedding in the old capital Yangon, surfaced on the Internet purporting to show the bride, Thandar Shwe, swathed in sumptuous jewels - revealing the utter disparity in wealth between the military elite and the impoverished general population. The champagne, five-star comforts and other opulence became a sore point among exile-based dissidents and the butt of jokes mocking Than Shwe and the junta's insistence that his military regime is not corrupt.” The same week the video appeared Transparency International ranked Myanmar, along with Somalia, as the most corrupt country in the world. [Source: Michael Casey, Associated Press, October 1, 2007]

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian: “Strings of diamonds, cascades of champagne and tens of millions of dollars worth of gifts would be considered ostentatious at any wedding. But in Burma - one of the poorest countries in Asia - people are said to be up in arms at the luxury on display in a video of the wedding laid on by the head of the junta, General Than Shwe, for his daughter...Opponents of the military regime claim that spending on the couple’s marriage in July was more than three times the state health budget. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 2, 2006 /\]

“In the most opulent sequence, the camera zooms in on glittering jewelled clusters in the hair of the bride, Thandar Shwe, then pans down from her diamond ear-studs to at least six thick strings of what appear to be diamonds. At a lavish reception, the groom - Major Zw Phyo Win, an army officer and deputy director at the ministry of commerce - pours champagne over a cascade of glasses and helps his bride slice into a five-tiered cake. What is not seen are the gifts, which reportedly include luxury cars and houses worth a total of $50m (£26m). According to south-east Asian newspapers, the rush to buy jewels as presents and decorations pushed up the price of precious stones in the run-up to the wedding. The wedding video appears to have been filmed with the approval of the the married couple and guests. It is unclear how it was leaked on to the internet or how widely it can be seen in Burma. /\

“Such mindless indulgence - smiling, well-fed guests wrapped in their finest clothing and most expensive jewels - is an affront to the millions of Burmese suffering under the incompetence and brutality of the country’s military leadership, and the millions of Burmese migrants trying to scratch out a living on foreign soil because no proper employment is available at home,” wrote editor Aung Zaw in Irrawaddy. “Than Shwe was the one who accused other top leaders of corruption whenever he wanted to remove them. It’s the pot calling the kettle black.” /\

“The minutiae of the wedding arrangements provided material for observers of the secretive regime who believe Than Shwe may be preparing to step back from the day-to-day running of the country. “In the seating arrangement, Than Shwe and his deputy were on one table and all the other junta members were on a very distant table. That tells you a lot about the hierarchy,” Soe Aung of the Bangkok-based National Council for the Union of Burma was quoted as saying by Reuters. In footage of the ceremony at a state hall in Yangon, Than Shwe walks beside his daughter in white shirt and a traditional orange wrap called a longgyi, a rare sight of a general almost always seen in military uniform. Many other guests were in uniform. /\

Wikileaks Cables: Myanmar General Considered Buying Manchester United

Former Myanmar leader Than Shwe once considered spending a billion dollars to buy Manchester United as a gift to his grandson, a soccer fan.

Robert Booth wrote in The Guardian: “The leader of Burma's military junta considered making a $1 billion (£634m) bid to buy Manchester United football club around the time it was facing rising anger from the United Nations over its "unacceptably slow" response to cyclone Nargis.Than Shwe, commander in chief of the armed forces and a fan of United, was urged to mount a takeover bid by his grandson, according to a cable from the US embassy in Rangoon. It details how the regime was thought to be using football to distract its population from ongoing political and economic problems. The proposal was made prior to January 2009; only months earlier, in May 2008, the Burmese junta had been accused of blocking vital international aid supplies after Nargis struck, killing 140,000 people. [Source: Robert Booth, The Guardian, December 6, 2010 ^]

“Than Shwe reportedly concluded that making a bid for United might "look bad" at the time, but the revelation that the proposal was even considered is likely to fuel criticism of the regime's cruelty. The senior general instead ordered the creation of a new multimillion dollar national football league at the same time as aid agencies were reporting that one year on, many survivors of the cyclone still lacked permanent housing, access to clean water, and tools for fishing and agriculture. ^

“The mooted price tag for Manchester United was exactly the same as the aid bill to cover the most urgent food, agriculture and housing for the three years after the cyclone, as estimated by international agencies including the UN. The proposal revealed that the regime, which is increasingly exploiting its oil and gas reserves, felt confident of finding such a sum. According to Forbes magazine's valuation of the club at the time, $1 billion would have been enough to acquire a 56 percent controlling stake. ^

"One well-connected source reports that the grandson wanted Than Shwe to offer $1 billion for Manchester United," said the June 2009 cable to Washington. "The senior general thought that sort of expenditure could look bad, so he opted to create for Burma a league of its own." Than Shwe then reportedly coerced and bribed eight leading business and political figures to establish teams and ordered them to spend large sums on imported players and new stadiums. ^

“The cable revealed that in January 2009, selected Burmese business people were told "that Than Shwe had 'chosen' them to be the owners of the new professional soccer teams. [The informant, a top executive at one of the sponsor companies] said the owners are responsible for paying all costs, including team salaries, housing and transportation, uniform costs, and advertising for the new league. In addition, owners must build new stadiums in their respective regions by 2011, at an estimated cost of $1 million per stadium." ^

“The Magway team was spending $155,000 a month on salaries while the Kanbawza team, linked to a bank, had budgeted $2 million for the 2009 season. Rangoon United hired five players from Africa and Delta United recruited several Argentinians. "When asked why the owners would participate in such an expensive endeavour, [an executive with one company sponsor] observed that they had little choice," the embassy reported. "'When the senior general asks someone to do something, you do it with no complaints,' he stated." ^

“He added that several of the business people expected to receive incentives from the regime, such as construction contracts, new gem and jade mines, and import permits, which would more than offset their costs. The owners of the clubs in the Burma national football league, which launched on 16 May 2009, include "regime crony" Zaw Zaw, who also chairs Burma's football federation and drew up plans for the league with the senior general's grandson. "Zaw Zaw hired Senior General Than Shwe's grandson to play on the team," a separate cable adds. But according to the dispatch, "many Burmese businessmen speculate the regime is using it as a way to distract the populace from ongoing political and economic problems or to divert their attention from criticism of the upcoming 2010 elections". ^

Cronies in Myanmar

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post, “A new English word has entered colloquial Burmese, a word that could not even be uttered in public until recently. The word is “crony,” and it describes the business elite who exploited their closeness to the country’s military rulers to amass vast wealth in the past two decades. These well-connected elite made their money in industries such as construction, rubber and logging, as well as in arms dealing and drug smuggling. Their gains have only increased in the past two years, a result of changes that have privatized many state-owned assets and enterprises — and allowed the rich to buy them up at bargain prices. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, March 26, 2013>>]

“Burma’s business elite have been investing some of their wealth by erecting hotels and office buildings in Rangoon and other cities. But outside these gleaming new buildings, cycle rickshaws still ply the streets, and there are few signs of a more general boom. Small-business owners and shopkeepers say consumer demand remains tepid. The business elite, say critics such as Zaw Aung, a former political prisoner who is a research fellow at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, have the power to crush potential competitors, corner the benefits of Burma’s reform process and prevent a new, more diverse middle class from emerging. >>

Aung Zaw wrote in The Irrawaddy, “Indeed, there are many questions that need to be asked. Can cronies become builders of industry and national economic power? How can they contribute back to society by building philanthropic foundations and provide life-long assistance to society? Many showy tycoons and cronies in Burma are not interested in helping society. In fact, critics have charged that contributions from cronies are tiny compared to the money they spend on their posh Italian sports cars.” At same time some “cronies have quietly supported Suu Kyi and the opposition movement and donated to the Burmese community. [Source: Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy, January 28, 2013 ////]

“Sean Turnell, an expert on Burma’s economy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, thinks the cronies are destructive and resistant to reform. “I think the majority are cronies of the destructive sort—but some might turn out for the better.” “They are rent-seekers pure and simple rather than builders of genuine enterprise,” he added. “[They are] living off government regulatory largesse, the recipients of monopoly and quasi-monopoly profits and so on. As such, they are political animals as much as economic ones. But certainly there are some too who may emerge as something else. On this front, I guess we have to hope so, since they are amongst the few with sufficient capital to do transformative things, if this is what their desire is.” ////

Jill Drew wrote in the Washington Post, “"All they know is stealing," seethed one taxi driver as he took a passenger on a circuitous route to the airport, slowing in front of the house of Tay Za, the owner of a local airline who is close to Senior Gen. Than Shwe, leader of the junta. The villa had an open garage, with two Ferraris inside, one red and one yellow. "They want money, money, money. And we have nothing," he said. The driver keeps a notebook hidden under newspapers on his dashboard. In it he writes, in Japanese characters, how the government controls gasoline sales to siphon money for themselves. He wants to smuggle the notebook out of the country so foreign media can report on the system. The government limits official gas sales to two gallons a day. To buy more, drivers must purchase black-market gasoline -- obtained by sellers who pay kickbacks to government-appointed filling station managers -- at nearly double the official rate.[Source: Jill Drew, Washington Post, October 24, 2007 \\\]

See Separate Article LOCAL GOVERNMENT, BUREAUCRACY, CRONIES AND CORRUPTION IN MYANMAR

Former Imprisoned Crony Still Looking for Ways to Make Money

The Washington Post reported in 2008: “The climate of nepotism and capricious junta policies means that uncertainty pervades even among the most seemingly successful. In his sparsely furnished living room, an avowed former "crony" of senior generals recounted how he grew a small logging firm that traded rosewood and teak to China into a sprawling foreign investment firm that eventually bankrolled three ministers and a mayor, all of them senior military officers. In return for supplying licenses and contracts, the four received large deposits in private Singapore bank accounts, he said. [Source: Washington Post, August 16, 2008 /|\]

“Profits, however, one day started to slip, the deposits to those bank accounts slimmed, and the businessman was thrown in jail, charged with the very thing that swelled the officers' accounts, he said -- using a local company as a front for illicit foreign dealings. But nearly eight years behind bars hasn't dissuaded him from attempting another trek down Burma's twisted path to prosperity. Only six months since he was released, gray-haired and frail, from Insein prison, he says he searches the Internet daily for information on how to tap the booming emigrant industry -- funneling unskilled Burmese workers to jobs outside the country. "This is not a legal way. It is a form of trafficking," he said. For help, he said, he would be turning to old friends in the Home Ministry. As for his clients, he added, they don't really know what they're getting into. But "if they have a chance to go abroad, they can make money." /|\

Zaw Zaw: One of Myanmar’s Premier Cronies

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post, “Zaw Zaw, the head of the giant Max Myanmar conglomerate, is one of Burma’s richest men, having made his fortune through lucrative government contracts, helping to build the country’s new capital, Naypyidaw, in the past decade, and constructing roads and extracting tolls. He profited handsomely when state-owned assets were sold off in 2011 in the largest privatization push in Burma’s history, picking up a banking license and cement factory. He runs roadside gas stations, controls the auto import trade, owns a jade mine and rubber plantations, and is fast expanding into luxury resorts. Zaw Zaw insists that he pays taxes and creates jobs, and he says Burma will not prosper if everyone in the business community is vilified as being cronies. “At this time, we all have to cooperate together to build the country,” he said. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, March 26, 2013>>]

Aung Zaw wrote in The Irrawaddy, “Zaw Zaw—who is still in his mid-forties— is media savvy and friendly. He will proudly tell visitors and the media that he once washed dishes in Japan before coming back to Burma to run his own business selling used cars and later getting involved in the jade mining business in Kachin State. “I have nothing to hide,” he told me. He was a university student during the 1988 uprising in Rangoon and he witnessed the crackdown and his fellow students being gunned down. [Source: Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy, January 28, 2013 ////]

“Since his early days, Zaw Zaw’s business empire has expanded considerably. In addition to his mining interests, he now has his own bank (Ayeyarwady Bank, one of the largest in Burma), a cement factory, gas stations and a major construction company. The latter company was awarded numerous lucrative contracts in Naypyidaw, the new capital, including a stadium for the 2013 Southeast Asian Games. ////

“Zaw Zaw may be rich, but he also know that he needs to contribute to society. In 2010, he set up the Ayeyarwady Foundation, a charitable organization. Since then, he has been building schools across Mon and Karen states and Irrawaddy and Mandalay divisions. Recently, the chairman of the Max Myanmar also attended the wedding of a former student leader and member of the 88 Generation Students group.////

Tay Za: Another One of Myanmar’s Premier Cronies

Makoto Ota wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “A mysterious tycoon lurks behind Myanmar's military government. Tay Za, said to be 43 years old, is known for his close relationship with the junta leadership. The United States earlier this month imposed fresh sanctions on Myanmar, freezing bank accounts of businesses close to the junta, apparently targeting Tay Za. But observers have said the sanctions will not sway the tycoon, who is said to be cunning enough to help the junta in skirting most U.S. and EU sanctions. [Source: Makoto Ota, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 30, 2007 ||||]

“Tay Za built his fortune since 1990 through logging, teak log exports, hotels and tourism. The exact size of his fortune and personal details are not known, but his close proximity to the junta and its help in his success is well reported. He is the owner of Air Pagan--in which the wife of the junta's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, is an investor. Tay Za also is the only authorized import agent for the Russian military industry. He, together with Vice Senior Gen. Maung Aye, the junta's No. 2, clinched a deal to purchase MiG-29 fighter-bombers from Russia in 2002. It also is rumored that Tay Za helped, through Air Pagan, Than Shwe's wife and others leave the country for locations such as Vientiane and Dubai during the peak of September's antigovernment demonstrations. ||||

“Tay Za is said to have numerous subsidiaries, bank accounts and luxurious condominiums in Singapore, and he has "no trouble lending his money out," according to a source in Yangon. This diversification means the U.S. sanctions, which only freeze assets in the United States, probably will have little impact on the tycoon. ||||

Aung Zaw wrote in The Irrawaddy, “Tay Za is known to be close to Burma’s senior military leaders, including ex-dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe....However, he told me that he never met the reclusive former strongman until after his helicopter crashed on a snow-capped mountain in the far north of Kachin State in February 2011. Than Shwe—who refused for a full month to allow foreign aid workers into Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis claimed more than 140,000 lives—immediately ordered hundreds of troops to conduct a search-and-rescue mission for Tay Za and his crew, all of whom survived. Tay Za told me he later went to the residence of the recently retired junta supremo to express his heartfelt gratitude. Tay Za also quietly met Suu Kyi soon after her release in November 2010. He had reportedly offered to assist the NLD. Party sources told me Suu Kyi did not reject his offer. [Source: Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy, January 28, 2013 ////]

Myanmar of Cronies Try to Improve Their Image

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post, “Faced with a lot of bad publicity, the cronies have been fighting back. Some have warned of legal action to try to silence critics; Khin Shwe has threatened to attack the farmers who have occupied his land. But most have been trying to improve their images — to make themselves more acceptable business partners in the new Burma, because they fear retaliation and losing their wealth, or simply because they don’t like criticism. “It gives me so much pain, I often cannot sleep at night,” Zaw Zaw, the head of the giant Max Myanmar conglomerate, said in a rare interview last month while watching a soccer match in Rangoon, the former capital, also known as Yangon. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, March 26, 2013>>]

Aung Zaw wrote in The Irrawaddy, “One Rangoon–based observer said that Zaw Zaw and other cronies need to show not only that they support current political reforms, but also that they are willing to make a long-term commitment to the development of civil society. They should also return land that they acquired under the former regime, he said. “The cronies must show that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem,” the observer added. [Source: Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy, January 28, 2013 ////]

Providing cash and building schools and hospitals here and there isn’t enough, one Rangoon-based diplomat said firmly. Some cronies now realize that strong recommendations from Suu Kyi and prominent activists such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi and other actors in the civil society movement are important, as the US is closely monitoring them.

Burmese Nouveau Riche

Foreign investment in the 1990s created a class of instant millionaires in Yangon, opened a yacht club, three new golf driving ranges and nightclubs that sold lobster for $100 a plate. At that time there were many new German, Korean and Japanese cars even though as of 1996 Myanmar didn't have a single new car dealership.

Myanmar greatest entrepreneur in the 1990s was Thien Tun, a man who went from being bean exporter in 1990 to an owner of hotels, factories, and a bank and the exclusive importer of a number of items, including Safeguard soap and Chivas Regal Scotch. His first major venture, a Pepsi bottling factory churned out 600,000 bottles of soft drink a day in 2000. At that time there were plans to boost the figure to 5 million bottles after a new plant is opened in Mandalay. "I wouldn't say it's a gold mine, but it’s a good investment" Theien Tun told the Los Angeles Times. "I already do gold mining, and up to now, I haven't made money there yet." he said his motto is: "Low profile, move fast, make money, live peacefully."

When Thein Tun was contacted by Pepsi-Cola in 1990 about forming a joint venture, he had never heard of the soft drink company but his son Than Zin Tun—a handicraft dealer in Thailand—told him, "Daddy trust me, this business can't fail." Among Tun’s planned joint ventures were a brewery with Carlsberg, a whiskey distillery with Seagrams, an "energy" drink factory with Japan's Marubeni, a plastics factory with South Korea, a Mitsubishi car distributorship and a gas turbine power plant with Hong Kong's China Light and Power Co. [Source: Michael Hirsh and Ron Moreau, Newsweek, June 19, 1995]

Khin Shwe, the owner of hotel and construction company that posted revenues of $60 million in 1994, at that time owned a large home, three new cars and 14 thoroughbred horses.

Poverty in Myanmar

Myanmar is one of the world’s poorest countries. Population below poverty line: 32.7 percent (2007 est.) The United Nations ranked Myanmar 138 out of 166 countries in its 2009 Human Development Report and ranked it as one of the twenty poorest countries in the world, with an estimated annual per-capita income of five hundred dollars. The per capita income in Myanmar is less than half that of India and below Bangladesh and Nigeria.

In the 1990s a lack of foreign exchange was offered as an excuse why there was nothing—no brooms, no soap, no toilet paper. Many people could only afford to have meat once a week and water generally had to be boiled before it could be consumed. The government spent a lot of money on supporting the army and buying new military hardware while most of the people lived in poverty.

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “Many if not most of Myanmar's people are either too poor or too isolated to raise their voices. Their main preoccupation is survival. The World Food Program has quadrupled the amount of food it distributes in Myanmar over the past four years, but still feeds only 300,000 people, a fraction of the 5 million who it says do not have enough food. Tony Banbury, the regional director of the U.N. World Food Program, says poverty and malnutrition in Myanmar are "one of the sad, forgotten stories of Southeast Asia." "There were a lot of wars and conflicts in Southeast Asia, but most countries have moved on," he said. "There are millions of people in Burma that the world has simply forgotten about." [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, October 25, 2007]

Thousands of people have died of AIDS because of the near-absence of retroviral drug treatment outside Rangoon and Mandalay. In 2008, the government failed to provide aid to millions of people affected by a devastating cyclone in the Irrawaddy River Delta. In early 2012, Myanmar President Thein Sein said The government aimed to cut the poverty rate from 26 percent of the resource-rich country's 60 million people to 16 percent by 2015 and use "all means possible" to fight graft, which he said was one of the biggest threats to the country's progress. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, March 1, 2012]

"The World Food Programme [WFP] provides food aid to 500,000 people across Myanmar [Burma] but that really only represents the poorest of the poor," Paul Risley of the WFP told the BBC. "What we've found is that over the last decade, opposite to virtually every other country in Asia where slowly poverty is being gnawed away at and food security is becoming more commonplace, in Myanmar there are more people living below the poverty line and more people facing food insecurity," he said.

Poor People and Poverty in Myanmar

In the Irrawaddy delta, where many Burmese villagers live, the poor live meal-to-meal in flimsy thatch huts on bamboo stilts along coffee-brown rivers and rice paddies, according to AFP. After being isolated from the rest of the world for so long, many are used to expecting very little in a country where running water and electricity are still considered luxuries in many areas.

In 2007, Andrew Marshall wrote in Time, “Burma has a grave and worsening humanitarian crisis. Half of Asia's malaria deaths occur here; a third of the children under 5 years old are malnourished; most of its people live on less than a dollar a day. "People have been successfully intimidated into keeping their heads down--maybe," says Shari Villarosa, chargé d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Rangoon. "But it's still a struggle for them to survive--to feed and educate their families, to get health care. So there could be another eruption." [Source: Andrew Marshall, Time, October 11, 2007]

In the 1990s, the United Nations estimated that one in three children under five are malnourished, a condition that makes children who 15 and 16 look nine or ten. To earn money to pay off loans for food some families sent their daughters to Thailand, where they often were forced to work as prostitutes and returned home with the HIV virus. When trains stopped at bridges people sometimes approached the windows and moaned "We are hungry. Have pity." The passengers on the train usually toss them food. One woman told Swerdlow, "It wasn't like this when I was young." [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

On the streets of Yangon you can see children sleeping on pieces of cardboard, groups sleeping on bundles, women with malnourished children, and vendors selling worthless objects. In Mandalay, people ties bags with leftovers to lampposts to give to the poor and beggars of all ages are a common sight at Maha Myat pagoda, "We're not hungry or dying," a Rangoon shopowner told the Los Angeles Times. "But there's a lots of hardship. People with contacts in the ruling class get richer, but the average person can barely make ends meet."

Myanmar’s Poor Eek Out a Living with Leftover Gold and Jade

Reporting from Kharbar, Myanmar, Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Squatting along the rocky banks of the Nmai Hka River, villagers labor from dawn till dusk over large wooden pans, scrounging for crumbs from the junta's table. Children barely big enough to swirl the heavy slurry toil alongside men and women, doing backbreaking work that exposes them to toxic mercury. Every few minutes, they pause and tilt their dripping pans to catch the sunlight, hoping for the glint from a few golden flecks that haven't been scooped up with the rest of Myanmar's vast mineral wealth by the ruling generals and their cronies. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007 *|*]

“On a recent day by the river, Ja Bu, 46, strained to lift shovel loads of slurry as a 10-year-old boy, ankle-deep in the cold, muddy water, worked a pan big enough for him to bathe in. Sixty miles west, Ja Bu's younger brother was searching for jade in the drainage ditch of a mine exhausted years ago by the junta. The few dollars that Ja Bu and her brother manage to scratch together each day from what the generals didn't take buys food, clothes and shelter for 10 people. *|*

“The junta tightly controls access to its large gem and jade mines, but remote places such as Kharbar” are beyond their reach. “But the junta doesn't let much trickle down to places like Kharbar, a remote northern stretch near the Himalayan foothills, close to the Chinese border. It's a spectacularly beautiful, unforgiving place where villagers live in thatched huts with walls woven from bamboo. Thin as cardboard, they are flimsy shelter against frigid winter winds. And as the cost of food and fuel rises, so does the villagers' resentment, which roils like the rapids of the Nmai Hka that taunts them with tiny gifts of gold. *|*

“Dong Shi, a wiry man in a green sweater splitting at the seams, has been working the brown slough and bamboo sluices here for three years. On a good day, he finds $8 worth of gold flakes, the biggest about the size of a pinhead. Like other prospectors, he must pay $250, or more than half an average person's annual income here, to the owner of the land for permission to pan just 10 square feet of riverbank.After Dong Shi pays his stake's owner, his share of the diesel to run a generator and sluice pumps, school fees for his four kids and other mounting expenses, he has little left. "We eat all that I earn," he said. "I have nothing left in my pocket. Tomorrow I go back to work on the river, just to have some more food." *|*

“It is grueling, risky work. To separate gold particles from the slurry, miners squeeze drops of mercury from strips of cloth soaked in quicksilver, exposing them and the river fish they eat to dangerous levels of the heavy metal, which can damage kidneys and the nervous system. For all the prospectors' pain and risk, most pans come up bust. So they dig deeper, push the limits harder.Desperate to hit pay dirt, dreaming of finding a rare nugget instead of just flecks, some villagers rig up hand pumps onshore to homemade breathing hoses, and wade to the middle of the river. They work up to three hours at a time underwater. *|*

“Child labor is an essential part of production at the bottom end of outdoor factories that surround Mandalay's jade market. Children huddle on their haunches around glowing embers in metal braziers, melting doping wax on the end of dop sticks, plucking small pieces of jade from a cup, and carefully placing them on the wax blobs. They blow gently to harden the seals and then hand the sticks up the line to other children. *|*

“On a recent day, one boy sat on the edge of a stool, stretching his leg to reach a wooden pedal that he pumped to spin a bamboo cylinder, wrapped in sandpaper, as he ground pieces of jade to a refined sheen. Once they'd done their best with small hands scraped by the grinders, the boys passed the jade along to men. It takes an experienced hand to get the shimmering polish that will bring the best price, a small piece of the profits that keep Myanmar's military in power. That can't be left in the shaky hands of children. *|*

Economic Gap Between Thailand and Myanmar

On the economic and social disparities between Myanmar and Thailand, Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “On one side, millions of Myanmar's people suffer from chronic malnutrition. On the other, Thais enjoy a much more affluent society, where people are generally so well fed that obesity among children is a big concern. Children die in Myanmar of diseases so easily preventable that most people in Thailand have never heard of them. Burma was considered one of the most promising economies in Asia during the immediate postwar years. Today, the comparison with Thailand highlights Myanmar's missed opportunities under the grip of its military government and the breadth of the country's problems. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, October 25, 2007 <=>]

“There are significant differences in the salaries of construction workers: a daily wage the equivalent of 100 baht, or about US$3, on the Myanmar side, compared with double that in Thailand. A teacher on the Myanmar side earns the equivalent of US$47.50 a month, residents say, compared with upward of US$158 in Thailand. Crossing into Myanmar means stepping back in time. Bicycle rickshaws are a major mode of public transportation on the Burmese side -- not because they are good for the environment, but because many people are too poor to be able to afford a car or a smuggled motorcycle from Thailand, which earns US$10 billion a year shipping cars and pickup trucks around the world. <=>

“In both Thailand and Myanmar, the military has been deeply involved in politics in recent decades. Thailand has had more than a dozen coups since the 1930s and, after the overthrow last year of a democratically elected government, power remains in the military's hands. The salient difference, says Sean Turnell, an expert on the Burmese economy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, is that Thailand's leaders have allowed businesses to thrive. <=>

“During 45 years of misrule, Myanmar's generals have almost entirely dismantled the economy, he said. There are no effective property rights and contract enforcement is nonexistent. "If in other countries ruling regimes behave occasionally as mafioso in skimming a cut from prosperous business, then Burma's is more like a looter -- destroying what it can neither create nor understand," Turnell said. The economic dysfunction means there is no financial underpinning for better healthcare or more widespread distribution of medicines. <=>

“According to UNICEF, 10 out of 100 children in Myanmar die before reaching the age of five. In Thailand, two out of 100 die. A woman has a one in 75 chance of dying in childbirth in Myanmar, compared with one in 900 in Thailand. Because children in Myanmar are malnourished, 32 percent are significantly below the expected height for their age compared with 13 percent in Thailand. Cynthia Maung, a Burmese who runs a nonprofit health clinic on the Thai side of the 1,800km border, has become accustomed to detecting malnourished children. "The skin peels easily," she said. "The hair becomes brittle. The eyes look drowsy. There's muscle wasting -- you can't see the muscles, just bone and skin." “ <=>

“Terrence Smith, a US gynecologist and obstetrician at the clinic, says most of his patients are unnaturally lean. "We do ultrasounds and the transducer goes straight to the organs," he said. In one corner of Smith's ward were two tiny, malnourished newborns dropped off and abandoned by their mothers. Maung's clinic was set up to treat sick patients from Myanmar who cannot afford health care inside their country. The clinic treated about 2,000 patients in 1989 when it opened. Last year, 100,000 Myanmar people came for treatment.” <=>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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