Saturday, June 21, 2008

Lost Hope: Once Glittering, Yangon Is Now a Ramshackle City of Fear

Despair and Neglect in Myanmar's Old Capital;
Locals See Spies on Every Corner
YANGON, Myanmar -- Fifty years ago, this city was one of the bright spots of Asia, a glittering, proud capital of a newly independent nation rich with natural resources.
A World War II era bus on the streets of Yangon.

But what I saw during a recent visit was a city in shambles -- a melancholy outpost of crumbling colonial architecture, economic neglect and deepening paranoia. These problems predate Cyclone Nargis, which shook the city and villages to the south in early May, and no doubt will continue long after the disaster recedes from glare.

Once-grand ministries and British-era mansions sit abandoned or neglected, with collapsing roofs, peeling paint and smashed windows. Unemployed youths loiter about, smoking cheap cigarettes. Hawkers scratch out a living on the street selling tobacco, knickknacks and wan produce. Jury-rigged vehicles prowl the streets; one I saw was little more than an engine and fan belt attached to a wooden platform on wheels.

Soldiers are everywhere. They walk aimlessly, looking for something to do, or gather in foyers, or ride by in military vehicles. On more than one occasion, local residents warned that some people in plainclothes were "military intelligence." In the absence of more reliable information, it was impossible to know if the locals were correct, or delusional.
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Women walked to a market in a middle class township of Yangon on May 29.

Wandering on foot in the center of town, I stopped at one of the more impressive colonial structures, a four-story red-brick office with stone lions reclining along the roofline. It looked to be abandoned. Most of the windows were cracked and open to the hot, humid air.

"There's no maintenance at all," said a man in street clothes who was acting as a guard for the building, a former High Court. Although some staff still use it, he said, others moved away after 2005 when Myanmar relocated its capital to Naypyitaw, a remote town about 180 miles to the north.

I was warned by my tour guide that the man might be "military intelligence."

Later, I walked past another British landmark with ornate latticework. The tour guide said it was once a railway office. Now, the latticework is falling off and vines grow from cracks in the facade.

"What do they use the building for now?" I asked.

"Storage," my guide said.

"What do they store there?"


I pulled out a video camera to take a shot. But I was told not to film the building, because it is a government office, and therefore "sensitive."

Most of the cars on the road date to the 1980s or early 1990s, and many appear to have been painted by hand. Locals say the government blocks most imports of private vehicles, so people are forced to keep dilapidated cars on the potholed roads long after their prime. According to a recent story in the Myanmar Times, the hottest cars in Yangon right now are the 1986/87 Nissan "Sunny Super Saloon" and the 1988 Toyota Corolla SE Limited.

I hired a newer, mid-1990s Hyundai, with fading black upholstery and power windows that didn't work. "You can keep a car in good condition for 30 years," said my driver cheerfully. With so few vehicles to go around, he said, used cars actually gain value over time in Myanmar, instead of depreciating as they do in most other countries. Owning a car "is the best investment there is," he said.

Cyclone Nargis has added to the woebegone air of Yangon. Although the city was spared some of the worst destruction that occurred in areas closer to the coast, felled trees nevertheless litter the place. Diplomats joked that at least now it's possible to see the city's historic buildings more clearly, since so many trees were uprooted or destroyed.

Crews of soldiers were busy clearing the debris, but many seemed more interested in hanging out than working. One group of a dozen or so uniformed young men sat glumly along the trunk of a giant dead tree, smoking cigarettes while one soldier gave another a haircut.

Hard-Hit Economy

The cyclone made a marginal economy even weaker. At the Scott Market, a warren of tin-roofed storefronts popular with tourists, vendor after vendor said business was lousy, and had slowed even more since the storm. One young woman proffering bright blue, red and green longyis, or Myanmar-style sarongs, said she hadn't sold anything all day.

Only about 200,000 of Myanmar's 48 million people have working mobile phones. Residents say the government controls the issuance of SIM cards and prices them beyond most budgets. Although there are 100 or so Internet cafes in Yangon -- typically located in dark, narrow storefronts -- they rely on agonizingly slow connections and require generators to offset constant power outages.

International aid workers continue to operate in Yangon, though not as many as would normally be present in the aftermath of a natural disaster because the government has refused to grant many visas. Most of the aid workers hang out at the Traders Hotel, a bunkerlike building more than 20 stories high where many nongovernmental organizations from the West also now maintain offices.

During the day, the foreigners gather in the lobby; at night, they retire to the bar, which looks a bit like an airport lounge, with too much light, a dart board, and a menu that includes fish and chips, nachos and chicken burgers.

Aid workers said they were saddened by the low standard of living, the restrictions imposed by the government, and their own lack of access to cyclone areas. Several were convinced the hotel's rooms, and the main lobby area, were bugged by the ever-present "military intelligence."

At times, the notion of an all-powerful military with spies on every corner seemed almost laughable. One afternoon I drove past the Shwedagon Pagoda, a majestic golden stupa that is one of the most famous sites in Myanmar. On my left, two soldiers in uniform sputtered by in a ramshackle red Toyota sedan that looked like it had been built in the early 1980s. As they passed, I noticed two teddy bears in the rear windshield.

Whether spies are everywhere or not, it doesn't matter; local residents believe they are being watched, and that is all that counts. The government continues to arrest citizens who are openly critical of the regime, and it sends messages to residents through state media. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper, for example, had an article warning that "unscrupulous elements" were spreading misinformation about the government's response to Cyclone Nargis.

Censorship boards decide what's shown in movie theaters, locals say. Two films were advertised along Yangon's main thoroughfare: "Aliens vs. Predator 2 -- Requiem" and "Fight Club," an Indian import bearing the same name as a Brad Pitt film.

Sanctions from the West have taken their toll, too. Among other things, they prevent U.S. banks from doing business in Myanmar. As a result, it's very difficult to use a U.S. credit card. The city functions primarily on cash; residents must carry fat wads of local currency, known as kyat. Or, they can use U.S. dollars -- but not just any greenbacks. All bills must be new and free of marks, tears or other blemishes; otherwise, they won't be accepted.

While browsing at a streetside bookseller one day, I picked out a laminated hardback titled "The New Burma," published by the Economic and Social Board of the Government of the Union of Burma in 1954. Written after Burma gained independence from Britain, but before the military came into power, it outlined bold goals for economic development, including a futuristic new engineering college and huge investments in electrical power, ports, railways and health care. A cartoon showed tractors replacing elephants for hauling lumber.

The book proudly suggested that Yangon -- or Rangoon as it then was known -- would someday have as many telephones per person as Tokyo. No one would compare Yangon to Tokyo now.

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