Within the last decade, the cost of a bus trip across Rangoon, a cup of tea, or a bottle of peanut oil has risen tenfold. One sack of the lowest quality rice in Burma today sells for around US$12: half a month’s wages for a construction worker; an unimaginable amount for the children picking over rubbish heaps in search of a cabbage leaf or some discarded grains.
But while the spreading poverty has been documented and raised by international groups, the contrasting displays of extravagant riches by its small elite have attracted less attention abroad. In the country, they are increasingly hard to ignore.
Small fleets of luxury four-wheel-drive vehicles and sedans now navigate Burma’s pockmarked highways and byways alongside the ubiquitous battered Japanese busses and decades-old passenger vehicles.
In parts of Rangoon, up-market boutiques full of the latest electrical products and European cosmetics huddle close together against a backdrop of dimly-lit general stores and market stalls.
The property pages of the Myanmar Times buzz with excited chatter about the size and cost of mansions (such as the one pictured above) that are filling empty spaces or taking over from older, less ostentatious houses in the few parts of the city with a regular supply of electricity. Much of the paper’s remaining contents consist of features on the people who occupy these columned monoliths, whereas no mention is made of those who build them or the conditions under which they live.
This gap between the haves and have-nots has grown so wide in the last few years that there are now said to be only two classes in Burma: “htarsaya mashitelu” and “sarsaya mashitelu”; those who have so much stuff they have nowhere to put it, and those who don’t eat.
Around the world, statisticians and social scientists have debated the extent to which relative financial inequality undermines the effective working of a country. Some have argued that whereas a wealth gap has a strongly detrimental effect in some it makes little difference in others.
Burma seems very far removed from all this. The reason is that the wealth gap there is not relative at all. It is a gap between those who switch on the lights at night and those who cannot, those whose children study and those whose children work, those who get medical treatment — preferably in Bangkok — and those who stay sick; those who eat and those who do not. It is a radical division between haves and have-nothings. There are no grounds for talk of relative difference.
It is important to bear in mind that this gap also exists within the army. Historian Mary Callahan has observed that whereas the difference in living conditions between higher and lower military personnel was a decade or so ago quite modest, it is now both dramatic and highly problematic. And although it has not yet caused a split within the armed forces of the sort that may threaten the junta’s hold on power, it is exacerbating tensions and undermining the ability of senior officers to manage their subordinates.
Extreme poverty and extreme luxury together make a heady mix. So far, the protests against worsening economic conditions in Burma have been concentrated on the former, and have been admirably restrained, even in the face of uncompromising violence. But if the regime persists in denying legitimate complaint about its abject impoverishing of millions while at the same time blatantly enriching itself and its minions, then public displays of resentment may soon become more vociferous and less tolerant, more pointed and less generous.
In that event, we will have only the regime itself to blame.
Source: Burma’s haves and have-nothings