Changed and unchanged

I hope you’ll forgive me if I take this blog to Burma one last time, because I’ve been pondering the changes that have occurred there since the last time we visited, a decade ago.

Burma’s borders have recently opened to foreign investment, construction has surged, and imported cars have rolled en masse onto the streets of Rangoon. Taxis have now replaced most of the five-passenger-plus-chicken moped loads. Shopping malls are edging out markets. Cosmetics ads have replaced propaganda billboards.

burmaroads

Ten years ago, when our van needed gas, the driver pulled behind an unmarked thatched-roof hut and boys with jerry cans filled the tank while the engine ran. This time, there were modern gas stations.

The roads are still hand-built by men, women, and children who crush the rocks, carry the loads on their heads, and stir tar over open fires. But if I understood correctly, the crews are now paid, and no longer conscripted from the villages.

And, of course, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sun Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest. Her National League for Democracy has visible offices. Our children received NLD swag. People on the train read Democracy Times, and instead of referring in whispers to “our lady,” people talk openly of her work.

But despite all these changes, most of the country lives in crushing poverty. There are still bamboo huts on stilts in the ditches around the big new bank buildings. The government consists of the same men, now in different uniforms. And, as one outspoken friend put it: “maybe you can say what you want, and read what you want, but you still can’t do what you want.”

burmaapartments

It’s hard to know how optimistic to be about the immediate future, when so many are working so hard with little to show for it. Thanks to the influx of foreigners and the spike in investment, apartments in Rangoon cost more than they do in Vancouver, yet many are existing on wages of $50 or $100 a month.

There is hopefully more change still to come…

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