The prostitutes come out at night, powdered and preened, to sit in the dark corners near the cinemas and under Rangoon’s bypasses.
“They’re hungry,” my driver says, passing a group of them in short skirts and heels.
You mean horny?
“No, hungry. For food.”
It is almost five months since Burma’s military government brutally crushed uprisings of monks and civilians, leaving at least 31 dead and many more missing, and Rangoon looks like a city at war. The potholes in the streets and the upturned pavement of the sidewalks were not caused by explosions, however, but rather decades of neglect. Razor wire lines the perimeter of government complexes and the houses of the wealthy, and sandbag outposts hide rifle-toting soldiers outside military buildings.
Rangoon’s streets are back to status quo, congested by day and quiet by dark, swept clean of the defiance of September. But the grinding poverty that brought the Burmese into them in September, and also in the uprisings of 1988, remains unchanged. There is anger in the teashops, and the sense that the country is simmering just below boiling point.
“In your country, you work two days and you have food for a week,” says Maung Lwin, a welder taking a break for tea after lunch. “Here, you work for one day and you eat for one day.” Lwin supports his family on an average daily wage of $2.30, the same salary the government pays a specialized doctor. Money is so tight that even sitting down for a 15 cent cup of tea takes careful consideration.
“You are human, I am also human,” he tells me. “But my luck is not the same as your luck.”
None of it makes any sense. Blessed with wealthy deposits of gemstones, teak forests, agricultural land, natural gas and oil, Burma has the potential to be the wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia. Burma produces 90 percent of the world’s rubies. Every night, scores of trucks carry massive old-growth teak logs – some as wide as the hood of a car – from northern forests to the docks of Rangoon. Burmese exports account for 30 percent of Thailand’s natural gas.
But in an economy run by the whims of the generals and their select group of friends, in a country ranked the world’s most corrupt by Transparency International’s 2007 index, none of that money trickles down to the rest of the population. Most of the profits are stored in banks in Singapore, as no one trusts Burma’s banks, 20 of which closed overnight in 2003 when their money dried up. The disparity between the rich and the poor, the connected and the rest, is vast.
You can see it in Rangoon’s nightclubs, where white shirts under black lights turn the realities of Burma upside down. On New Year’s Eve, Pioneers Dance Club is thumping with heart-shaking bass and the haute coutre heels of the children of the privileged, who paid the $10 door fee – four days' work for a government surgeon – to lose themselves in a night in booze and beats.
The room is filled with 20-somethings, clutching cigarettes and cell phones. The Burmese government has so regulated mobile phones that it costs about $2,000 to buy a sim card on the black market.
“You don’t worry, don’t worry! Everything is on me!” Jarem, a drunk Nepali ruby dealer shouts in my ear. He is dancing in front of a neon green felt poster of the London Bridge, and flashes me a practiced American gang-symbol, and a few words of what he considers appropriate ghetto slang.
“2007 was shit, man, SHIT!” he shouts. “But it’s over now, here comes 2008, forget it. FORGET IT!”
But for most of Burma, 2008 offers little more hope than the year gone by. In regulations that would not affect the night-club revelers, the government frequently decrees commodity price hikes and rations. On Dec. 30, taxi drivers were only allowed to buy one canister of compressed natural gas to power their vehicles – not nearly enough to turn a livelihood. The next day, the government lifted the ration, worried it might spark protests like last September’s fuel hikes did.
In early January, the government raised the tax on satellite television from 6,000 kyat ($4.60) a year to 1 million kyat ($769) – a 166-fold increase. It later reneged on the price rise, as dissent mounted.
But figures remain which the government’s daily games of brinkmanship cannot go back on.
More than 360 children under 5 die of avoidable diseases in Burma every day, according to Save the Children statistics. According to the UN, a third of Burma’s young children are underweight and 1 in 5 do not live beyond the age of 40.
Despite the daily struggle to get by - or perhaps because of it - many Burmese keep abreast of international news, via proxy internet servers and shortwave radios. They’re keeping a particular eye on the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.
“You like George Bush?” the owner of a teashop asked me on my first day in the country. I readied myself for my canned defense that not all Americans support their government. I needn’t have.
“I love George Bush,” he said. “He thinks something and he does it. He didn’t like Iraq, so he fights Iraq. I hope he’ll fight a war with my country.” He was thumbing through a worn copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and told me he wanted to write an edition of his own one day.
In the streets of Rangoon, I found out, George Bush enjoys perhaps his highest approval rating outside of Crawford, Texas. The heart-breaking reason is that the Burmese are still hoping America will use its military to oust their government and restore democracy to the country.
The U.S. election came up in another conversation I had with an English literature university student at Rangoon’s Shwe Dagon Pagoda.
“In America, it takes a lot of money to be a president,” he told me. “Here, you just need to have a gun and be a good shot. After you’re president, then you get a lot of money.”
I asked about his favorite writers, and he told me he had an affinity for the existentialists.
Several days later I was sitting in a tea shop watching buses that were built before WWII growl down the streets. I noticed a man at the next table was watching me. I took a sip of tea and smiled at him. He looked like he had something to say and was forming the words in his mind. Finally, he got up and walked over to me.
“In Burma, human rights, no,” he said quietly, crossing his arms at the wrists, as if they were hand-cuffed. “All people like Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said of the democracy leader who has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.
Then he put a finger to his lips.
“But talking... danger.”
And then he left.