Frustration foments in Yangon’s slums despite reforms

Updated 11 December 2012
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Frustration foments in Yangon’s slums despite reforms

Myanmar’s trumpeted reforms are yet to trickle down to Yangon’s poor, rubbish-strewn slums where experts say residents’ frustrations could turn ugly if the benefits of change are not felt soon.
Each month the bamboo shacks of Shwe Paukan are inundated when high tides overflow from the river running parallel to the slum.
The clean up after the knee-deep waters recede leaves little time for optimism over a reform process that has brought greater political and economic openness to Myanmar, but few signs that the lives of the poorest are about to improve.
“We have not felt the change that everyone is talking about,” said Ni Ni Win, 27, a mother of two.
“I think it has happened among the upper level of the society.”
It is an increasingly common concern and one US President Barack Obama touched on during his milestone Nov. 19 trip to the former junta-ruled country, where he hailed the “remarkable” pace of change but warned reforms must not bypass the poor.
Ni Ni Win, who earns around three dollars a day at a plastic recycling plant, is to a degree fortunate to live in her slum in Yangon, where an estimated two million people live in poverty.
A few kilometers away, near the city center, 400 to 500 people live in Aung Mingalar, an illegal settlement shoehorned between a river and a storage area for teak logs, which also serves as an open toilet. The slum is desperately poor — the earth is studded with rubbish and clothes are hung out to dry on barbed wire.
Amid the squalor residents eke out a few dollars by putrefying fish guts in barrels and selling the leftover oil to chicken farmers.
Ko Ko, 46, said he lives in constant fear his family will be expelled from their home. “We are not living here because we want to but because we have no choice... we can’t pay for a place to live,” he said as a young girl passed by with buckets of water hooked over either end of a stick across her shoulders.
Ko Ko provides for six people from the income from his small grocery stall. “The biggest challenge for us here is food. Every morning people have to struggle for food,” he said.
The United Nations agency for human settlements (UN-HABITAT) estimates that at least 40 percent of Yangon’s five million people are “poor or extremely poor,” surviving “day to day,” often in substandard housing or illegal dwellings.
“Nothing has been done in 20 years,” according to Michael Slingsby, the body’s urban development and poverty adviser.
With the city’s population expected to double to around 10 million over the next 20-25 years, Myanmar’s government will come under increasing pressure to tackle poverty or face mounting discontent among the urban poor.
They are a section of society often-neglected by foreign donors, Slingsby said, in a nation where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line — the majority in rural areas. After more than a year of dramatic political change that has helped the country out of international isolation, President Thein Sein has promised a second wave of reform focused on the economy, with the aim of slashing the poverty rate to sixteen percent by 2015.
It is an “ambitious” goal, says Sean Turnell, an economist at Macquarie University in Sydney, backing Myanmar’s potential to achieve rapid growth and simultaneously reduce poverty.
But that will only be possible with “a focus on agriculture” he says, calling for far-sighted policy to boost a sector which provides a living for the vast majority of Myanmar’s people. The government has been widely praised for major economic initiatives, including unifying multiple exchange rates, and enacting a foreign investment law.
But experts warn that social unrest may lie ahead if the benefits of reform do not trickle down, and fast, to the country’s most disadvantaged.
“This is potentially one of the major issues the reform process may have to face,” said Slingsby.
“Manifestations of discontent with poverty will take place,” said Win Htein, a lower house MP from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, predicting frequent protests as democracy is embedded.
“But they (protests) cannot reach the stage of threatening the government.” It is a warning that comes with recent precedent.
In 2007, a revolt led by Buddhist monks was sparked by anger at a sharp hike in fuel prices. It was brutally stamped out by the junta, but was the most serious challenge to the generals since a popular uprising in 1988. Myanmar’s nominally-civilian new regime has legalized protest allowing the country’s long-suffering people to voice their discontent — notably last spring against crippling power cuts.
In contrast with the dark years of the junta, the response of the new administration was measured, says Turnell, “but there is always a danger” of a return to the repressive reflexes of the past.
The greatest challenges are likely to emerge in fast-growing cities such as Yangon, with the needs of slum communities expected to expand in parallel with their populations.
For now, residents of Shwe Paukan continue to rely on themselves to build a brighter future.
Ni Ni Win joined a savings group set up by the UN-HABITAT where 14 women each put 1,100 kyats, or just over a dollar, each week into a metal box which is then padlocked.
One day they hope to use their accumulated savings to start their own businesses and create a route out of the slum. “They hope their dream becomes a reality,” said Kyi Win, 64, leader of the group, adding they would welcome government help but “we will not live in anticipation” of it.


Rarer than a Sumatran rhino: a woman composer

Updated 18 February 2019
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Rarer than a Sumatran rhino: a woman composer

  • “I was the only woman in all my classes in the Conservatoire, and it was fine,” said Pepin, who is now working on her first ballet score in her Paris apartment which doubles as a studio

PARIS: Camille Pepin is part of a very rare breed. She is a female composer.
Women have conquered space, risen in the military ranks, but some professions remain resolutely and bewilderingly masculine.
When Pepin turned up for her first day at the Paris Conservatoire — as usual the only woman in a class of men — an official told her that her name wasn’t on the list.
But when she insisted that she was and that he look again, he cried, “Ah, you’re a woman!“
Camille is also a man’s name in France.
“I would never have thought,” he apologized. “There are so many men...”
With so few female composers in the classical music repertoire, it was an easy mistake to make.
Pepin has never let everyday sexism get her down though, laughing it off like water off a duck’s back.
“One male composer told me I was getting commissions because I was a woman and not too bad looking,” said the 28-year-old, whose first album, “Chamber Music,” is released later this month.
After a concert of one of her more combative pieces, “a man came to tell me my music was ‘very fresh, flowery and sweet’,” she told AFP.
“I am a woman so clearly those three words” apply, she said wryly.
Pepin, whose music recalls both Claude Debussy and American minimalist composers like John Adams, said sometimes the sexist stereotypes which persist in the classical music world are hard to take.

One “old school” music professor insisted she sit on his right at lunch “because that was a woman’s place” and sent her off to make the coffee.
“I was the only woman in all my classes in the Conservatoire, and it was fine,” said Pepin, who is now working on her first ballet score in her Paris apartment which doubles as a studio.
Mostly the young composer, who made her breakthrough with the orchestral piece “Vajrayana” in 2015, said she was treated exactly the same as her male colleagues in classes with French contemporary composers like Guillaume Connesson, Thierry Escaich and Marc-Andre Dalbavie.
Beyond the classroom, however, progress is slow in the conservative world of classical music.
Pepin believes it will take generations for the forgotten work of female composers to get just recognition.
Beyond the casual unthinking sexism, she said the biggest problem for young female composers was “a lack of role models.”
A few woman such as the American composer Meredith Monk, Kaija Saariaho of Finland and Tansy Davies from Britain have managed to break the glass ceiling.

But even Pepin admitted that when she was younger she didn’t know of a single female composer.
“We never studied them,” she said.
Who has ever heard of Helene de Montgeroult (1764-1836), Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) or Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)?
Fanny was the older sister of the more famous Felix Mendelssohn, with many at the time saying her work was more expressive.
But after she married she was limited to domestic duties and had to content herself with being her brother’s chief editor and muse, which led him to call her his “Minerva” of wisdom.
“Lots of female composers were crushed like Clara Schumann (the wife of Robert Schumann),” despite being one of the most distinguished composers and musicians of the Romantic era, said the pianist Celia Oneto Bensaid, who often performs Pepin’s work.
“You play my music,” Schumann once bluntly told his wife, a star of concert halls across Europe.

Born into a family in the northern French city of Amiens that wasn’t particularly musical, Pepin began to write her own melodies at 13.
But even at the age of five in her ballet class, her eyes were more drawn to the piano.
“I was so fascinated that I would forget to do my exercises,” she said.
Before settling on composing, Pepin thought about being a dancer. “I need to feel the notes physically,” she said.
Her first ballet will be choreographed next year by Sylvain pad for France’s Ballet du Nord.
Finally, she feels she is getting beyond the dreaded question — “But what do you do for a living?” — when she tells people she’s a composer.
“They thought it was just something I did to chill on Sundays,” she laughed.