Greener Pastures
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, April 23, 2019


Greener Pastures

By Kyaw Zwa Moe and Naw Seng OCTOBER, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.8

Workers nationwide are drawn to the promise of prosperity in Rangoon. Only a lucky few realize their dreams. Than Lwin spends his days as a waiter in a Rangoon teashop. But someday, the 13-year-old hopes to return home to his family in Nyaung Pin Tha village in upper Burma’s Magwe Division that he left two years ago in search of a living wage. "The main reason I came to Rangoon is to make money for survival. It is difficult to do this in my hometown," said Than Lwin. Now earning 3,000 kyat (less than US $3) per month, he is at the bottom of the wage scale in Burma’s capital. But provided a place to sleep and two meals a day by his employer, Than Lwin and most other rural poor workers in the estimated 2,500 teashops in Rangoon find that serving customers provides the only route to opportunity. The lack of jobs in Burma’s countryside, particularly over the last decade, has forced huge flows of rural residents to the capital and other urban areas to find employment. After Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Program Party was replaced in 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council introduced market-oriented economic policies building industrial zones and constructing hotels for tourists and skyscrapers for foreign companies. This modernization drive—concentrated in and around Rangoon—required both skilled and unskilled workers. And while some migrate to the capital to do business or further their education, most internal migrants in search of a higher standard of living have reinforced Rangoon’s workforce as waiters, construction workers, taxi drivers, masseurs, and prostitutes. Since 1990, the population of Rangoon has nearly doubled while that of Burma has increased 25 percent to 50 million. In 1996, the last year with available official estimates, over 60 percent of the total workforce engaged in agriculture, but farmers get little state support and are instead under strict orders to sell crops to the government at low-fixed prices. Thus, many have abandoned their family plots to head for greener pastures in the cities, particularly Rangoon and Mandalay. As a grocer in Taungoo, Pegu Division, Htay Oo could not fulfill his family’s financial needs. Five years ago, he came to Rangoon looking for legitimate employment so that he could send money back home, but found his only break was as a currency trader in the capital—an illegal and risky endeavor. "Now I’m not trading groceries anymore, but dollars. Since you can’t trade dollars in Taungoo, I’m staying here." For skilled workers holding advanced degrees around the metropoles—even for Rangoon natives—unemployment is a problem and underemployment is endemic. Aung Khin was awarded a Bachelor of Science in Physics from Rangoon University in 1988, but spent his first two years after graduation looking for a job. Now he drives a trishaw in a city township. "I earn about 1,000 kyat if I work the entire day," Aung Khin explains. "But I spend at least 500 kyat for two meals each day, and that doesn’t even include other daily expenses." It seems ironic that in such an environment rural migrants would flock to the cities to advance their education. Since 1988, the junta has closed the doors on most universities and colleges which has created a culture of informal and distance education programs, most of which are offered almost exclusively in Rangoon. A 19-year-old student from Moe Goke town, which is over 100 miles outside of Mandalay, recently came to the capital as an educational migrant. "I am attending three courses: Japanese language, accounting and computers, because there are no such classes near my home." It is uncertain whether he will be able to put his skills to use, especially if he returns home. Authors, journalists, musicians, actors and actresses from the countryside find their only opportunities knock in Rangoon, and Mandalay less so. An editor of a monthly magazine who migrated to the capital says, "I have to work as an editor here because there are no publications in my hometown." Internal migrants accustomed to their local economies face the highest living expenses in the country after resettling in Rangoon, and worker exploitation is rife. In the more than 400 garment factories in Rangoon’s industrial zones, laborers—predominately female—have to work at least 12-hour days and earn about 10,000 kyat monthly. Most stay with their fellow workers in cramped rooms provided by their bosses, who also hold the workers’ identity cards; a tactic that prevents workers with no documents from leaving the factory out of security fears. The harsh conditions notwithstanding, nearly 300,000 workers had taken up employment at garment factories until last year.

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