Myanmar: a few stories

[p]Since leaving Yangon we’ve had pretty poor internet access so uploading text, let alone photos, has been tricky - my apologies for these fits and starts in posting![/p]

[p]The research we’ve been conducting on financial habits in rural and urban communities has moved relatively smoothly despite several hang-ups, which I’ll describe in a later post.[/p]

[p]We’ve encountered some truly incredible people, and in every case our interviewees have been generous with their time and insights regarding how they approach finances in their lives.  As we’re not building a quantitative picture, instead relying on the personal observation and insight from individuals, we’ve had more work to do in sifting through our conversations and giving an order to what we’ve heard and learned.  Here are a few profiles of people we’ve talked to so far.[/p]

[p]Early on we spent time with Daw Boke who jointly operates an apartment rental service and a bus ticket sales business from her home with her husband. Aunty Boke, as she’s affectionately known, has slowly built up her business in downtown Yangon from the home she’s occupied for the last 40 years. As buildings grew out of the old traditional wooden homes – first bland socialist era apartments, and now glitzier structures built by Chinese, Thai, and Singaporean investors – she has grown extremely familiar with the property and apartment owners in the area.  In Myanmar it is still illegal for 100% foreign ownership of property, so she her business has been entirely with Burmese individuals.[/p]

[p]Over the last two years of the reform Aunty Boke’s business has grown rapidly. Over five years ago apartment turn over and rentals were relatively slow and she relied on her landline phone as a second source of income. Most homes don’t have phones so private phones that are set on the sidewalk on a small children’s table, or beside a front door effectively become public phones for a small fee and can bring in much needed extra money. However that business all but dried up for Aunty Boke over the last two years as cell phone use has grown rapidly.[/p]

[p]Now Aunty Boke’s apartment business provides the lion’s share of income by connecting individuals with apartment owner’s spaces. However her reputation and length of time working in this field has made her a familiar source for successful rentals thus allowing her to work directly with apartment owners, and earn a larger portion of the profit from a rental. Normally the renter's fee is divided between anyone who has interacted in the process of renting an apartment – for example if you unlock the door for a client or show them where the apartment is you get a certain percentage of the renter’s fee.  Interestingly too all transactions for rentals occur in cash. If Aunty Boke helps sell an apartment – at shockingly high prices now as the Myanmar real estate market has exploded – the buyer will meet the owner at the apartment with hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, carried up dimly lit stairs in trash bags. This process is surprisingly easy and completely normal. Services exist for carting large volumes of cash around – a curb side pick up and drop off service. She told us stories of how people would forget bags of cash in taxis, or on curbs, would walk up to their apartment realize their error, and run back down to find the bags sitting in the same place, or the cab driver trying to find them to return the bag. This does not mean crime doesn’t occur – she noted that just several days prior a car was broken into on her street and emptied of its contents (though there were no bags of cash inside).[/p]

[p]Despite a high cash system of transacting in real estate, and the use of a bank, Aunty Boke confirmed a trend we’ve seen repeated in a wide range of economic segments -She invests in a friend's business (car parts manufacturing) just so she won’t have large volumes of cash in her home or in the bank account (which she only opened 3 months ago). While she does use banks, multiple economic crisis and the collapse of several former banks leaves her wary, so she prefers to bank with the government banks that have more state guarantees than the private ones.[/p]

[p]When looking at financial habits, after 60 years of military rule it's impossible not to run square into those who’ve suffered under that reign. Political prisoners have to transact, make money to survive, and try to live as best they can given a system stacked against them. But what is striking is the perseverance and generosity they demonstrate in overcoming years of imprisonment. In another encounter we met with a former political prisoner, Ko Kyaw Soe, who after his release from prison, worked as a taxi driver, and provides interest free loans to other former political prisoners to start small businesses.[/p]

[p]Ko Kyaw Soe is by no means rich. He lives in a small second floor apartment that over looks the street where he parks his car. Out of prison a year ago, he still must take time off from driving due to kidney injuries he sustained from torture by prison guards. But for this exact reason he and two other former political prisoners now use their incomes to provide loans to those still coming out of prison. By saving up the equivalent of a little more then $500 they are able to help the discharged political prisoner start a small business or place a rental down payment on a taxi. They then have a year to repay the amount.[/p]

[p]Cars, which have been notoriously expensive, still are commodities that most taxi drivers do not actually own.  However prices have come down significantly – only three years ago a basic Toyota that could cost $600,000 due to the import license and drivers permit, now are down to $100,000. Ko Kyaw Soe owns his own car but most of the prisoners starting out must pay for a daily rental fee, gas, and larger monthly costs to the car owner.[/p]

[p]Ko Kyaw Soe, given his political status, cannot directly transact in the bank account system. When arrested in 2007 he lost a large amount of his money to the government. Instead he keeps the cash in his car – safe compared to his home, which has seen frequent ‘visits’ by the police.  Here too, all of his transactions are made in cash from the rent of his house to providing funds to the other prisoners. Cash, though at risk of theft, is liquid and easy to transact in, which is crucial in a field that has a high cash turnover rate like the taxi business. Despite the risk, he hopes that by providing loan to other former political prisoners they will provide a leg up for those have been stigmatized by years of imprisonment.[/p]

[p]I’m hoping to post more profiles of people we’ve interviewed and some photos too if possible. Eventually we’ll have a few more concrete ideas about just what issues people face, how they adapt, and some factors unique to Myanmar’s context.[/p]