a collection of thoughts and writings on Burma
When I went to Burma in 2006, one of my father’s friend, who I’ll call U Myint Aung picked us up at the Rangoon airport, in a old Toyota saloon car. A short and stout man, he was very talkative. U Myint Aung works as a part-time taxi driver and gambles with the Thai stock market volume numbers daily (it’s sort of a fad in Burma, to guess the decimal values of Bangkok’s daily stock market volume in hopes of winning money). He has four children, three boys and a girl. Although he is a college friend of my father, graduating with a B.Sc. in Chemistry, he cannot find decent work with an foreign registration card (FRC). The family was living off of the dollars Myint Aung had earned in Singapore during the last three years, doing odd jobs like splitting durians before he was caught by the authorities with an overstayed visa, caned and deported back.
My family stayed in Rangoon for two days, before leaving to go to upper Burma. We exchanged money using black market rates with him and gave him thousands of dollars in cash to safely keep while we were traveling (because credit cards rarely work in the country, cash is all travelers bring). He was very friendly, taking us to my father’s hometown, Nyaunglaybin in Pegu Division and delivering traditional Burmese mohingha and one-no hkauk swe to our hotel room each day out of his kindness and taking us to Shwe Pazun Bakery. The last day, my parents decided to treat his family to some biryani at the Nilar Dan Pauk restaurant. Afterward, we told them to walk with us back to the hotel. Their kids had never been to a Western-style hotel (it was Traders), were astonished by the illuminated swimming pool. When we went to our hotel room to talk, my sister and I played with the kids, running around in the hallway outside our room. They were amazed by the flushing toilet, something they had not seen before. They flushed toilet paper down, astonished and slightly scared.
That was surprising. I don’t know if I was just ignorant, but I had never thought of the flushing toilet as a luxury–after all, in my world, it was a necessity. It was not like I didn’t know that squat-down toilets existed, for I had used several in the countryside. But to see the reaction of kids who were in elementary and middle school and had never been exposed to the toilet, it shocked me. I remember when we went to upper Burma, U Myint Aung’s wife Yin Yin offered to wash all of our clothes. The morning before my family was set to leave, I brought the laundry up eight flights of stairs to U Myint Aung’s flat at the his insistence, as he was driving us to the airport.
During our travels in Rangoon, U Myint Aung talked about how he didn’t really care whether Burma was democratic or whether the Burmese people had liberties. He wanted security; he wanted a stable job that provided sufficient income to feed his family. He wanted to shed his FRC, a ridiculous document that is given to Chinese and Indians who cannot prove that their forebears lived in Burma in the 1800s. And it’s true, there is no explicit promise that democracy will bring economic change. But the status quo seems to only exacerbate the problem.
When my family came back to Rangoon for the final four days, we were picked up at the airport by my mother’s childhood friend, Loke Mway (Hakka Chinese for ‘little sister’). She comes from what some would call ‘old money’; her family had been wealthy for several generations; her father owned the Nwa Ni Pastry Company, a national brand in the 1960s, and during nationalization, converted his factories to produce fine sugar for government bakeries. She drove us in a new silver Suzuki SUV, a rarity in the country. Currently, her family owned an amusement park in Rangoon and had invested in several enterprises. She took us to an international hotel to eat and later to the amusement park she and her husband owned. The rides of course, did not look entirely safe. Two days later, we visited Loke Mway, who lives in a five-story apartment in Bahan Township (rebuilt to suit the family’s needs). What an extravagant life, I thought. The family lived with three maids, each for one of their daughters.
The next morning, Loke Mway came with her family to talk and catch up at the hotel we were staying in. My sister and I proceeded to show her daughters, all attending an international school, the swimming pool. They were impressed and begged their mother for membership at the pool. I couldn’t believe it. What an amazing gap in wealth there is in Burma, even in urban Rangoon. The well-connected and rich live lives entirely oblivious to their surroundings. They are awash with so much money that it’s unbelievable. I had never met such spoiled children, even in America.
I remember that Loke Mway had successfully acquired a visa from the U.S. Embassy’s OP lottery program (before it became the DV lottery) and wrote to my mother asking if she would help her. My mother replied and said that if she wanted to come to the U.S., she would have to be willing to give up her life in Burma and accept that she would have to struggle and work from the bottom up. She decided not to come. It’s usually not worth it for rich Burmese people to come to the U.S., unless they have professional degrees (like medical doctors) for the simple fact that they will be giving up lives that are in many ways, better in Burma (aside from no political rights, but I think that’s scantly important among the upper classes there). For the poor and the middle classes, it’s a lot more fruitful to come to any industrialized country to work, because there is a complete guarantee that they will lead better lives there.
Unlike the few idealists who are committed to bringing democratic reform to Burma, for most Burmese, the most pressing issues are not concerned with political freedom or tyranny; they’re rooted in more basic problems, citizenship, employment, and the human desire to be secure. And for many, it’s even simpler than that: they merely want running water, some rice and housing. Democracy may help solve this, but the élite and military élite in particular will surely have trouble in changing their ways. It is going to take many decades to shake off the grip and enormous influence the élite have in the country. A democratic Burma may satisfy the West and the international community, but in the end, it may not satisfy the 50 million who live there.
All of the names have been changed for privacy reasons.