Phoenix (pseudonym) reflects on the economic, political, and cultural atmosphere in Rangoon after the February 2021 coup through the eyes of a normal youth.
January 4th of this year marked the 75th anniversary of Burma gaining independence from Great Britain. Normally, there would be nationwide celebrations on Independence Day; in the past, the government would conduct a huge ceremony in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, while the people around the country would hold fairs and games for everyone to participate in. Some popular games include သံပုံးရိုက် (tan-bone-yite), in which a blindfolded person has to smash an iron container placed approximately ten feet from him, အာလူးကောက် (r-luu-kauk) which is a short-distance marathon where the competitors have to collect potatoes assembled in front of them and put them in a sack, hence the name, which literally means “picking up potatoes.”
However, this year, the atmosphere was more subdued. Although the military was keen to celebrate Independence Day’s Diamond Jubilee, the number of fairs and games organized by normal people were much fewer than in previous years. Indeed, when I took a stroll through my neighborhood on that day, I saw that, although utility poles were adorned with flags, only a handful of people turned out to play games. In previous years, a large crowd, children and adults alike, participated in fairs and games. Elderly people were seen sitting on the verandas watching the games. People contributed money to award winners in various competitions. None of this could be seen this year.
Independence Day celebrations are not the only events affected by the 2021 military coup. Other annual fairs and special markets attract smaller crowds than usual, too. A fair is held annually near where I live; I do not know who arranges it, but the organizers normally hold it in December. Peddlers from around Rangoon come to display their wares, and most makeshift shops sell food. The fair attracts many people, and sometimes, it takes quite an effort to make your way through the crowd. Last December, the fair was held for the first time in two years, but only a few people came; even I, who frequented the previous year, did not go. On December 23rd, a bomb exploded in the fair, and two people, one of them rumored to be a child, were wounded, further discouraging people from going to fairs.
As mentioned above, I left my apartment to walk around my neighborhood on Independence Day. Walking in the evenings is a habit I acquired last year. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, I spent my evenings participating in extracurricular activities at the university or at home comfortably watching a new movie. But beginning in March 2022, there have been frequent electricity cuts throughout the country, and sometimes we only get six hours of electricity per day. With so few things to occupy myself with without electricity, I gained the habit of taking a walk in the evening. Before the coup, under the semi-democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, we had electricity 24/7 only, with occasional electricity cuts when the government needed to repair a generator or cut down some branches from the trees, which interfered with electric cables. People are still adjusting to a new normal with power shortages. Officially, the government declared that there would be four hours of electricity cut each day; however, the daily electricity cuts would often last longer.
One outcome of electricity cuts is that rechargeable emergency LED light bulbs, mostly imported from China, some of the more expensive ones from Thailand, have become necessary household appliances. If you visit a friend, you will likely see an orange-colored LED bulb hanging from a nail on the wall. Most of the people in Rangoon live in cramped apartments with poor lighting and ventilation. Therefore, it is necessary to have the lights on even during the day. For Rangooners, it has become a chore to charge the lightbulbs whenever the electricity is turned on. Sometimes, we do not have time to recharge emergency light bulbs and cell phones because electricity is cut off without warning.
The worst thing is that my laptop’s battery has broken down and, although I could use it when there is electricity, I cannot charge it. I could walk into a nearby IT shop to replace the battery, but I cannot afford it. A young man like me, who does not want to continue my education under the junta-controlled education system, does not have a degree, which makes it hard to get a permanent job. Since the coup, many foreign businesses and companies have left the country, some out of conscience, others due to international sanctions. These departures left these companies’ former staff without jobs. In addition, university students who decided not to attend school under the junta are jostling for the few remaining positions. The result is disastrous. While employers exploit the workers who work for them by cutting their salaries and extending their working hours, it has become extremely difficult for youth without work experience or personal connections to get a job.
As if that is not enough, inflation is worsening day by day. In two years, the price of imported commodities has increased twofold. Most consumer goods in Burma come from China and Thailand. Even the price of rice, one of the few things in which Burma is self-sufficient, has increased. According to the data published by The Irrawaddy, the price of rice rose from 52,000 per sack MMK in January 2020 to 100,000 MMK per sack in August 2022. Likewise, the price of gasoline, the most important imported commodity, also increased from 665 MMK per liter in January 2020 to 2400 MMK per liter in August 2022. Common laborers, their families, and the shrinking middle class are hit the hardest. The junta tried to control the rising prices of essential commodities, such as rice and oil, but to no avail. They also forced merchants and shop owners to sell those commodities at a fixed price. Often, you could see people standing for hours in line to buy rice, cooking oil, and eggs at a lower rate.
The price of petroleum and IT products also soared. When the global economy declined at the beginning of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we used to joke around that “I will drink gasoline instead of water” because, at that time, a liter of water cost 300MMK, and a liter of gasoline was only 250MMK. Now a liter of gasoline costs around 3000MMK. Foreign currency exchange rates are also rising; the junta ordered banks to exchange foreign currency at fixed prices, but in the black market, you would pay approximately 3000MMK for one US dollar.
My stroll through the neighborhood took me to Kan-daw-gyi, or The Royal Lake. A bronze statue of General Aung San stands on the bank near a public park. During colonial times, a statue of King Edward VII stood there, surrounded by beautifully carved marble pillars. It was replaced with the statue of General Aung San after independence. However, the pillars were left intact until a couple of years ago when they were demolished by the municipality. It is only one among many of the early 20th Century structures dismantled to make way for modern steel and concrete abominations. I doubt that there would be many people like me, who mourned for those architectural beauties. Indeed, most of the people I am acquainted with do not care for the beautiful colonial-era buildings built in neoclassical style.
In my eyes, they are more than just old buildings. They make Rangoon the Rangoon I know today; they are an integral part of the city. When I see them, most are still standing but in bad condition, they remind me of the days when Rangoon was more cosmopolitan, back when those buildings were gleaming with fresh paint when Rangoon resembled the New York of the East, where Jews, Muslims, Burmans, and Europeans lived in their respective quarters next to each other. Indeed, when you got off the ship to set foot on Rangoon’s soil, there was little chance that the first language you would hear was Burmese. During the previous decade, when Burmese people enjoyed some limited freedom, Yangon Heritage Trust, an organization founded by historian Thant Myint-U, led the effort to renovate and repair old buildings. The organization also installed blue-colored plaques at some of the culturally and politically significant buildings to commemorate them. After the coup, although the junta declared some well-known old buildings as heritage buildings, there have been no visible efforts to preserve them.
One of the abandoned buildings which play a significant role in Rangoon’s political role is The Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Building in downtown Rangoon. In 1990, NLD party held a conference there which would later be known as “Gandhi Conference”. Sadly, the building is left to rot and crumble. The outer walls are covered in moss and tree roots; the windows are boarded up, and birds and rodents have made the building their home. There are many other buildings like it declared as “unsuitable for living” and demolished to make way for modern high-rises.
At the same time, religious buildings are faring a lot better due to the funds from the devotees. An Armenian Church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, one of the few buildings still standing built in the late 19th Century, is still in good condition. The two great cathedrals of Rangoon, St. Mary’s and the Holy Trinity, also look like they were built yesterday. However, the priests, who run those religious institutions, and many Buddhist monks are under severe criticism for cooperating with the junta. In the past two years, the head of the junta, Senior-general of the armed forces, and self-proclaimed Prime Minister, Min Aung Hlaing, visited churches, mosques, and Buddhist monasteries and met with prominent leaders of various religious communities. Some of the famous religious leaders were heavily censured by their followers.
I stood looking at the statue of General Aung San, lost in thought, pondering those matters, oblivious to my surroundings. I was jerked back to reality when two military vehicles sped past the statue, sirens wailing loudly. Both are pick-up mini trucks manufactured by a Chinese automobile maker called FAW, indicating the growing Chinese influence on the country. The soldiers were armed to the teeth, ready to shoot anyone who dared to attack them. During the past months, the sight of military vehicles patrolling the neighborhoods has been common. At important junctions, the military has built dull, grey two-storied buildings with a flat area at the top to observe the buildings’ immediate surroundings constantly. They are equipped with toilets, solar panels, and accommodations for the soldiers on duty. You could always see three or four military personnel and police officers on top of those buildings, chatting idly. People despise the police and military so much that they invented imaginative vocabularies for referring to anything related to the military. For instance, the traffic police are nicknamed “duck egg” after the white round helmets they wear, while the watchtowers are referred to as “dog toilets,” a phrase that equates them with Rangoon’s public toilets.
The soldiers, the military vehicles, and the watchtowers combined induce terror and resentment among the civilians. The police and military are regarded not so much as protecting the citizens of Rangoon from danger and harm as foreign forces occupying and oppressing the civilian population.
When the military vehicles left, I went over to one of the benches surrounding the statue to sit. A couple of middle-aged women sat on a bench near mine. Although they were not talking very loudly, I could make out their conversation. One of them was explaining to the other about her son’s plan to go to Japan and how difficult it is to get a passport. Hearing this made my mind wander again. Almost all the people I know are studying Japanese. Japanese language schools are popping up around the city like mushrooms after rain, and every bookshop downtown sells Japanese language textbooks. Although I am not planning to immigrate to Japan, I heard that even filling out a registration form for taking the Japanese language exam is very competitive. Getting a passport is almost impossible with so many people trying to get one and so many corrupt officials trying to make a profit out of this collective obsession with going abroad. You have to spend a lot of money to get your hands on the red-covered book. Usually, people from the countryside have to rent accommodation near the passport office since they have to wait two or three days for the passport application process to be complete.
With so many young people trying to leave the country, within a decade or two, there would be no educated people left in Burma. It is understandable; there is no opportunity for them here, either educational or economic. As far as the junta is concerned, there are only two things worth doing; making the country presentable to the international community, such as holding a rigged election to create the illusion that Burma is on the road to democracy again, and suppressing all the opposing voices which would disrupt their hold on power. They are not interested in improving the education system, the economy, or the public healthcare system. They would drop the country into a chasm if need be.
The number of high school graduates who apply for government-funded universities is also alarmingly low. Many brave teenagers are defying the junta by refusing to enroll in the institutions run by them. The result is that wealthy families send their children to developed countries to pursue tertiary education; most young boys and girls who are not that fortunate try to get out of the country in any way they can. Many study Japanese and try to immigrate to Japan; some try to get a job in the service sector in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore. It is sad to see so many young people losing their opportunities.
Heavy with negative thoughts, I rose from the bench and started to trudge home in the waning dusk. I passed a bus stop where people, some sitting, most standing, carrying lunch boxes in their hands, were waiting for transportation that would carry them to the suburbs. Since the coup, bus fares are also increasing due to the constantly increasing gas price. The quality of public transportation is declining; with high gas prices, bus drivers no longer turn on the air-conditioner, making traveling by bus in Rangoon’s insufferable hot weather a living hell. Occasionally, gangs of bandits would get on the buses and violently take cell phones and valuables from the passengers. People get no protection from anyone. The police are too busy hunting political opponents and the judges are busy staging show trials to sentence them.
I walked toward my apartment. My heart was heavy, like every day, and I wondered whether my countenance betrayed my thoughts. The faces of most people I passed were somber and dull. Considering whether I would be happy again living in Rangoon, I ascended the darkened staircase to my sanctuary after another aimless day in the city.
Phoenix (pseudonym) is a former student at the University of Rangoon. He writes articles for The Irrawaddy on a freelance basis.