Friday, December 10, 2004

Just another day in downtown Yangon

Life in Yangon shows the effects of the lethal combination of corruption and incompetence. If it were merely a zealous regime driven by a desperate desire to please God or Marx or some other fictional being, then it would in a strange way be understandable and explainable. As it is, however, its only goal is the perpetuation of its own power. No doubt those in senior positions have looked beyond the edge of the cliff and seen what their own lives would be like if they were to ever lose their grip on power, and have decided to hold on extra hard.

There are some things that are hard not to notice when walking down the street in Yangon, all of them symptomatic of the problems afflicting the country:

-Buses. Buses are not simply crowded, but are permanently overcrowded. Most of the vehicles servicing the sprawling suburbs of Yangon are ancient, 1970s era vehicles whose only requirement is that the engine can start. All other safety features (closing doors, adequate seating, brakes) are bonuses which are really experienced. Thick clouds of black smoke billow out of each of the vehicles, sometimes coming from the exhaust pipe. On board, there are 4 people standing for every 1 person sitting. People are crammed into every imaginable space inside the vehicle, and plenty more hang out the side with no more than 2 limbs inside the vehicles. The lack of suspension and the rugged nature of roads here makes journeys especially fun.

On a two hour bus trip from nearby Bago to Yangon, I was lucky enough to be giving an aisle seat. Not a seat next to the aisle, but one in the aisle. On a small plastic stool that rarely sees a backside of my proportions. I was indeed lucky to have such a luxurious position, with many of the buses occupants standing for the entire trip. People seem completely accepting of this situation, and indeed take the most precarious and uncomfortable position as a badge of honour.

- The streets. The pavements here are in an appalling state. It has clearly been many years since any maintenance has taken place, and they have because dangerously ragged and uneven. Giant slabs of concrete poke out at sharp angles, and it is not uncommon to see large drops of two or three metres in the middle of the pavement, with no warning and simply common sense as the only thing between an unwitting pedestrian and an experience with the Myanmar medical system. This also seems to party explained why Yangon people are keen on Burmese Tea rather than beer as their drink of choice. The effects of a drunken stumble home could be particularly nasty.

The roads are in a similar state, both in the major cities and between them. The roads a dangerously uneven, and it seems an amazing effort to navigate through the potholes. No doubt Myanmar drivers are quite used to the situation, but it seems to take its toll on the vehicles. In stories which give travellers nightmares, intercity trips usually take much longer than the official estimate. The trip from Yangon to Mandalay, the other big city (approximately Melbourne to Sydney in distance) is estimated to take 17 hours by bus, but has been known to take up to 50 hours due to breakdowns and the poor state of the roads. Now that would be an epic journey.

- The street sweepers. In a city with so much ugliness, incomplete construction, abandoned sites and poverty, it is heartening to know that the city of Yangon has opted for a military style city beautification program. There is an army of people who are employed to sweep the streets of rubbish and leaves. So overstaffed is this particular operation that the rubbish is not simply swept away. It seems like the first sweepers job is the gather the rubbish in one place. The next one's job is to sort it by colour. Another then arranges it alphabetically. The next checks the quality of the work of the first three. And the fifth one picks it up. There may well be a sixth person who redistributes it across the street so the whole thing can start again.

Captured in those images is a sign of what is wrong with the regime running the show at the moment. This country has so much human capital, so many people willing and able and desperate to improve themselves and the world around them. But instead of building roads and maintaining buses and establishing businesses and writing books, the government has an army of them engaging in pointless busy work. This is all the product of carelessness, poor planning, and a complete and utter lack of innovation and creativity. The single objective of the regime is the maintenance of its own power, and it has little interest in the legacy that it will leave.

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