In Broken Economy, Burmese Improvise or Flee

People file in and out of the downtown passport office in Rangoon. Stalls outside offer passport candidates some of the more than 15 forms required for their applications.
People file in and out of the downtown passport office in Rangoon. Stalls outside offer passport candidates some of the more than 15 forms required for their applications. (The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 16, 2008

RANGOON, Burma -- For the crowds of young Burmese outside the Immigration and Customs Office here, the commodity of choice is a shiny, tomato-red, cardboard-stiff new passport.

One recent morning, hundreds of men and women flooded in and out of the office, located on a rickshaw-crammed boulevard, or camped under umbrellas along the sidewalk to wait for their passport applications to be processed. Some scoured billboards that listed openings in garment factories, shipyards and other workplaces in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

A pair of 22-year-olds took turns using each other's backs to fill out forms. Both said they hoped to go to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to find jobs as hotel waiters for a year, maybe two.

"It's like the collapse of the Berlin Wall," said a passing 29-year-old man, meaning the pent-up outflow of people. Unemployed for three years, he has yet to hear back about a passport application he filed last year.

The run on the passport office reflects a social crisis at the heart of an economy in free fall.

Sixty years ago, Burma, also known as Myanmar, was among the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia, outshining its neighbors with higher standards of living and greater social mobility. Its universities attracted students from across the region, and its rich stock of natural resources promised steady growth.

But decades of mismanagement by military rulers who have kept as tight a grip on the economy as on their political power have sent the country to the bottom of regional and global rankings -- among the worst for poverty, health care and corruption. The education system has been deliberately weakened in response to students' anti-government organizing, and virtually all avenues to prosperity are controlled by senior generals.

When the military seized power in 1962, it set the country on what it called the "Burmese Road to Socialism," confiscating private property and curtailing free enterprise. After a failed street uprising in 1988, there were limited moves toward liberalization. But today the government remains heavily involved in the economy, with military officers heading most state enterprises, often as a reward for political loyalty. A handful of enterprises known as "crony" companies for their closeness to the junta benefit from policies that promote monopoly.

"Our view is that Burma is an accident waiting to happen," said Mark Canning, Britain's ambassador to the country.

Diplomats and analysts say that economic grievances could at any moment trigger another street revolt akin to the two major ones of the past twenty years. Both began among disaffected youth.

A student-led response to the overnight demonetization of small bank notes in 1988 evolved into a massive pro-democracy protest. And last August, a sharp rise in fuel prices and bus fares prompted thousands to take to the streets, including a young generation of Buddhists monks, who often are keenly aware of lay folk's financial difficulties because daily donations in their alms bowls decrease.

Today, more than a third of children are malnourished, the average household spends up to 70 percent of its budget on food, and more than 30 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, according to United Nations estimates.

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