Life under Burma's military regime
http://news.bbc.co.uk/, June 2006
"I hate my life here. I'm just surviving
one day at a time," a Burmese taxi driver said sadly, as
he stopped to pay a bribe at yet another roadside checkpoint.
"Everything's so difficult. Prices
keep going up, and there's too little fuel and electricity.
"There are so many restrictions on
everything I want to do... and so much corruption," he said,
handing some money to a surly teenager.
For most people in Burma, life under the
military government is far from easy.
A farm worker told me he was lucky if
he earned 1,000 kyats ($0.80) a day. Some days he earns half that.
"I have enough to buy some poor-quality rice for my family,
but not much else," he said.
What angers many people is that Burma
has plentiful natural resources and was once one of the richest
countries in South East Asia, before decades of military rule
stifled the economy.
The situation has got far worse in recent
months, because of a government decision to increase the salaries
of state employees, in some cases by more than 10 times.
"Everyone knew the government couldn't
afford it," said a Burmese journalist.
The result was predictable - locals estimate
that prices have gone up by more than 30% since April, making
it harder for ordinary people to make ends meet.
Andrew Kirkwood, the director of Save
the Children in Burma, said malnutrition was a "serious problem",
with half the children under five in some areas of Burma thought
to be chronically malnourished.
"In some parts of the country, the
situation is as bad as we've seen in sub-Saharan Africa,"
A man from the western state of Rakhaing
said he had even heard reports of farmers selling their babies
to child traffickers in exchange for food.
But the problems that the Burmese face
go much deeper than just a lack of money. There is a huge disparity
between those allied to the ruling elite and the rest of the population
- a distinction which permeates every aspect of day-to-day life.
For many goods, there is a two-tier pricing
system. If you know someone influential, you can buy at the government
If not, you have to resort to the black
market, which is at least twice as expensive.
One of the hottest properties at the moment
is a telephone. The black market price is about $3,000 - way beyond
most people's means.
Petrol is another commodity where the
black market reigns supreme. An ordinary citizen is only allowed
two gallons (nine litres) per day at the government price - and
even then, queuing can sometimes take hours.
But there always seems to be plenty of
petrol at the many black market stands throughout the country.
"We're being robbed," one man said.
This climate of semi-official corruption
has become so entrenched that whole swathes of the population
earn their living from it.
To send a letter, you need to find a friendly
"agent" who will make sure it is not pocketed by a postal
worker. If you want to avoid paying constant traffic fines, or
your child to do well at school, it is vital to know the right
people and pay the right price.
Burma's military rulers make their presence
felt in other ways, too. Permission needs to be sought for almost
every aspect of life.
"Everything I do is restricted,"
one man said. "Where I go, what I do, who I see... The authorities
even have to give permission if I want anyone to stay the night."
The media, too, is heavily censored. "You
only see two colours on TV - orange (for the Buddhist religion)
and green (for the military)," said a former television employee.
The government is also unpredictable,
and many people fall foul of policies that seem to change at whim.
"One minute farmers are told to grow
potatoes to export to India," said a local NGO worker. "The
next minute the authorities won't allow it, and all that investment
has been wasted."
The latest government campaign is an initiative
to grow nut trees, not only as a source of bio fuel but also because
government fortune-tellers believe they will shore up the military's
Other government decisions, though, are
far more sinister. Groups such as the International Labour Organization
claim that the Burmese junta continues to use forced labour for
its often ambitious construction projects.
Sometimes villagers are even thought to
be co-opted as "porters" by the military, many being
maimed or killed by landmines as they are made to trek through
conflict areas ahead of the soldiers.
Despite living under one of the most draconian
regimes in the world, some Burmese people still manage to find
time for life's pleasures.
I spoke to a man in his early 20s who,
over the last few months, has been using the rare moments of electricity
to charge batteries so he can watch the World Cup.
I can imagine him now, glued to a television
screen, escaping for a few precious hours from the chaos around