Uncovering Burma: Parts 5 and 6

Author’s Note: We cycled through Burma for five weeks. The following 10 part series is our account of how recent political changes in this historically isolated country are affecting the lives of its everyday citizens. 

Part 5: Win

Teens play Chinlon, Burma's national sport. It's like volleyball, but done with a hollow ball of straw that cannot be touched with the hands

We met Win at his family’s autoparts dealership, a small storefront cluttered with hanging metal clamps, brackets, and bungee cords that obscured deep rows of semi-organized shelves.   I was trying to find a replacement bracket for the luggage rack on my bike, as the original one had snapped, and Win stepped out to help me as the only English speaker.  His English struck me for his quality and colloquialism– good speakers of the language are difficult to find in Myanmar.  We immediately invited him to dinner, hungry for some insight on the country and his story.

He told it over mutton curry and huge piles of white rice at a local eatery, across a table as loaded with Canon DSLRs, smartphones, and his Ipad as delicious food.  His electronics had been brought back from his days studying engineering and working in a semi-conductor factory in Singapore, where much of Burma’s elite goes to get educated.  He came back to help run his family business, but he brought back more than fancy gadgets.  In Singapore he had developed a passion for filmmaking.

When he’s not at the autoshop, Win sits in his room right on top of it, putting together a rough cut of his first feature length documentary.   He’s been teaching himself how to make movies on the internet since 2005, when he was one of the city’s only users of a dial up connection.  The process has gotten a lot easier in the last year, when the price of an internet connection dropped 15 fold– to 50,000 Kyat ($60)—and he could get one installed in his home.

Win’s film is about a giant Buddha statue in Pyay, and the efforts that go into taking its relics around every street of the city once a year so that those who cannot go to the temple can pray from their homes.  When he’s done with the project, Win wants to move on to directing scripted films. Myanmar’s first film festivals are happening in Mandalay this year, and he wants to be among his country’s first well known film makers.  As he proudly flipped through a collection of his photography on his iPad, he also talked about his dream of attending film school, to which he is applying.  The prospects, however, look tough; his chances for a scholarship are slim. The best option seems to be Art School in Singapore.  It’s his choice of last resort. He thinks the strict rules of the city state make it a horrible place to be a creative.

There’s another drawback on his dream.   His family desperately needs him at the spare auto parts business.  The number of cars in Burma has exploded in recent years, as has their variety and complexity.  Win is the only one who really understands what it takes to fix computerized engines, and how to control a digital inventory of parts.   It’s his job to train the business’ seven employees—four of which are brand new—in how to handle the new engines and source the parts.

We asked Win whether the increase in cars had grown his business, he replied “I guess the increase in cars is better, but the cars also last a lot longer.  Burmese cars break constantly.”

Win and Chris chat over dinner

The business looks as if it is here to stay.  Win thinks getting major car dealerships in Pyay is still more than a decade away.  “Nobody would be able to afford the new cars right now,” he said.

Likewise, Win cannot afford the tuitions of the American and Austrialian film schools he so wants to attend, or the time it would take for the Burmese film industry to grow.  Caught between the demands of his families and his dreams, he is in a catch-22.  He does not believe that staying in Myanmar gives him the chance of a promising career as a young creative, but he cannot leave without endangering his family’s business.  If his scholarship applications come through, it may be time to have a serious talk with his parents.  Until then, he’ll have to keep fixing imported products rather than leaving the country to produce them.

Part 6: Lucky’s Bar

Morgan was trying to photograph this monkey when it attacked him on Mt. Popa

If you want to have a beer in Yananguan, a blue collar town floating on the salaries of a government oil operation, you go to Lucky’s.    It’s a simple corner of the world, with the bar’s name in fading capitals on a huge sign dominated by a roaring lion and the word Dagon, one of Myanmar’s local brews.   Inside, you’ll find a small courtyard with four tables crowded with men, and a longer of row of empty settings under an open metal awning.  Just outside the bar and past a row of scooters, you can catch a ride back into downtown with a horse and buggy, the only cabs available.

The ruler of the house is Yin Htwe Minn, who works in the engineering department for the local oil rigs when she isn’t barmaiding.  At 46, she is plump and loud and bursting with character, the only woman in town who will break into the conversations of men at her bar.  Around her scurry her young children, and her husband, who manage the errands of delivering more liquor and snacks when customers make the gesture.

A group of women laughing, just a few hundred meters up the street from Lucky's

The customers are mostly civil servants: petrochemical engineers, professors, policemen and immigration officials. Employees of the service sector can rarely afford the venue. The men come as much to drink as to discuss, and they take the business seriously.  At many of the tables, each congregant has their own flask of Grand Royal whiskey (ingredients:  water, imported whiskey concentrate, ethyl alcohol) or Mandalay brand rum, which they mix in generous quantities with the local water.  Only the most leisurely drink beer.  At 500 kyat (60 cents) a glass, it is by far the least efficient way to socialize.

Even the government officials are stretching their budget. The geography teacher of the local elementary school gets “almost” 100,000 kyat a month, which means she makes roughly 100 dollars. The salary seems typical of civil servants—the sergeant of a fire squadron in Pyay quoted me the same figure.  Lucky’s owner, Yin, said she must combine the incomes of her government job, her bar and guesthouse, and her husband’s three rental properties to make ends meet.

Still, Lucky’s fills in each night with regulars who come as soon as the government offices close at 5:00 and they have gone home to eat the dinner their wives have prepared.  Over the course of the first half of the flasks, they talk about work and the youth or they gossip about their wives.  As with all waterholes, the conversation occasionally reaches politics, but Lucky’s is no forum for debate. “They talk about what they’ve read in the papers, or what they’ve heard, but almost nobody presents opinions. Yenanguan is a brown zone, and you have to be careful what you say here,” Yin told us.  She confided that local expressions of discontent with the government might lead to a police intervention, a particularly scary prospect at Lucky’s, where there is almost surely a policeman at the table next to you.  Yin herself got nervous and dropped her voice when we asked her about her discontent with the high taxes she must pay on her restaurant.

An engineering student from the local college, Htoo Sett Linn, who Yin brought to Lucky’s so he could practice his English with us, confirmed the hesitancy to speak up.  While he referenced “change” and “greater human opportunity” and a “love” of Thein Sein’s leadership, he admitted that he never spoke about politics with his friends or family. “We don’t understand such things,” Htoo said.  The engineer was pretty smart; his tone suggested he didn’t feel it his duty to try.

Lucky’s, it seems, is a venue of relaxation for the privileged.  But even in the comfortable haze of Grand Royal, everyone watches their step.

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