Life under Burma's military regime, 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," he said.

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.

Two-tier system

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 price.

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.

Strange decrees

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 power.

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 him.

Burma watch

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