Relatives from the North
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Tuesday, December 12, 2017
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LETTER FROM BURMA

Relatives from the North


By Aye Lae/Mandalay FEBRUARY, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.2


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Waves of Chinese immigrants are changing the way of life—and the face—of Mandalay

I was riding in a taxi on the Mandalay-Sagaing highway, returning home on a familiar road still pockmarked with gaping holes and throwing up swirls of dust.

Many people walked along the road, others pedaled bicycles and trishaws while others rode motorcycles or buses, everyone trying to escape the baking, midday sun. 

Having been away for three years, I felt that nothing had changed in Mandalay, which I still thought of as a city of bicycles.

However, I soon realized that this once culturally conservative city is now a hub for energetic Chinese businessmen and their commercial goods. People told me the Chinese were friendlier now and that more Burmese were studying Chinese.

Chinese businesspeople apparently control, or have strong interests in, building materials, clothing, household items, plastics, electronics, motorcycles, spare parts and gold. They also operate many restaurants and new hotels and guesthouses.

Mandalay clearly has more and bigger shopping centers, all loaded with the latest Chinese fashions and products that I had seen only a few days before on the Chinese border. Most surprising to me, was that even beauty salons were owned by Chinese.

“Many Burmese businessmen from Rangoon and other towns come to Mandalay for Chinese goods,” a Burmese wholesaler told me. “Many trading agents are in Mandalay because they can directly import through Muse [a Burmese border town].”

The Burmese often refer to Chinese as pauk-phaw (a relative), and it appears there are more pauk-phaw bosses than Burmese, as the Chinese can be seen everywhere living in villas and driving the newest cars and trucks.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Burmese, it’s still a struggle for the basics of life. I heard constant complaints about the rapid rise in inflation. The average daily wage for a worker is still around 1,500 to 2,000 kyat (about US $1.60). Ordinary people can’t afford a meal at a restaurant and spend their hard-earned money at tea shops. 

The Chinese are clearly changing the look of Mandalay. Many older buildings have been razed and replaced with new, multi-storey commercial buildings or homes, leading to a boom in property prices.

Many Burmese have taken advantage of higher prices, selling their older stores and homes in the downtown area in exchange for cheaper property on the outskirts of the city. Many now commute, riding buses to their jobs in the city.

“I couldn’t resist selling my old house to a Chinese businessman,” said Phyu Win, who now lives out of town.  “They will open a gold shop. I sold it for 70 million kyat ($56,000), but it’s now worth more than 100 million kyat ($80,000).”

Among my friends, there is still deep emotion surrounding September’s pro-democracy demonstrations, led by monks from Mandalay’s many monasteries.

“They (soldiers) blocked the roads when the monks marched, and the monks would turn left or right around a corner so they wouldn’t come face-to-face with the military,” said one friend. “It was like a cat-and-mouse game.

“When the demonstrators confronted the soldiers, they fired rubber bullets in the air,” she said. “They were everywhere.”

More people now speak out against the government, she said, even some civil servants, especially in private conversations.

Many of my friends were forced to attend a government- sponsored public meeting in November last year that was intended to counter the people’s uprising and to promote the regime’s so-called seven-step “road map to democracy.”

Near the end of my visit, I went to a monastery whose monks had taken part in the demonstrations.

A senior monk said sadly, “Only about 100 monks live here now. There were almost 2,000 monks, but the authorities forced them to go back home.”

Unfortunately, I noticed a turn for the worse among Mandalay’s teenagers, many of whom seem depressed about their future and have turned to drugs or alcohol use. Methamphetamine drugs are easily bought by young people, according to my friends.

While Mandalay has seen sudden change—and many new faces—and some progress for the good, I was struck by how the lives of ordinary people haven’t changed.

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