Frustration foments in Yangon’s slums despite reforms

Updated 11 December 2012

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.


Nepali mountaineer set for final push in record 14-peak bid

Updated 17 September 2019

Nepali mountaineer set for final push in record 14-peak bid

  • Nirmal Purja arrived at the advance base camp of the 8,201-meter Cho Oyu on Monday
  • The mountaineer has set several speed climbing records this year

KATMANDU: The current record for climbing the world’s 14 tallest peaks is almost eight years. Nepali climber, Nirmal Purja, who served in the British special forces, has a target of seven months.
On Monday Purja arrived at the advance base camp of the 8,201-meter (26,906-feet) Cho Oyu, ready for the final phase of the last three peaks in his feat of astonishing endurance.
“Nobody believed I could do this when I first said it ... I’m so glad to be inspiring generations of all ages through this endeavor. This is what keeps me going,” Purja said by phone.
“This is not about me... it is to show what the human body can do. To establish a paradigm shift in perception of human potential,” Purja said.
Only a teenager when he joined the British Gurkhas, Purja or “Nims dai” climbed both the 8,848-meter Everest and Lhotse at 8,516 meters in a record 10 hours and 15 minutes in 2017.
This inspired the 36-year-old to start “Project Possible,” scaling the 14 peaks — all higher than 8,000 meters — in seven months.
But doing so is radically ambitious. In the 1980s, it took Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka seven years, 11 months and 14 days.
South Korean climber Kim Chang-ho managed it in about a month less — although he did, unlike Kukuczka and Purja, do it without supplementary oxygen.
Before he set off on his first expedition, Purja had a detailed tattoo of the 14 mountains engraved on his back, with colorful prayer flags tracing his journey to the peaks.
Swapping his army boots for crampons, Purja quit the military after 16 years of service and re-mortgaged his house to begin his expedition and start raising funds.
Purja began his attempt in April with the 8,091-meter Annapurna, checking the illustrious “8,000ers” Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu off his list in only a month to finish his first phase.
A month later, he was heading to Pakistan for the second part of his mission where he first tackled the notorious Nanga Parbat at 8,125 meters. Twenty-three days later he was standing atop Broad Peak, his fifth and final mountain of the second phase.
Battling sleep deprivation to meet his target, Purja said he was almost sprinting up and down five of Pakistan’s highest peaks including K2, the second tallest in the world.
“I felt like this is one down and next to go (with every summit). We still have another to climb,” Purja said.
On track to make climbing history, the phenomenal mountaineer has in the process also set several speed climbing records this year.
This included his summits of Everest, Lhotse and Mount Makalu, three of the world’s five highest mountains, in a record 48 hours — and despite the deadly overcrowding this season on the planet’s top peak.
Purja also made headlines with his miraculous rescue operation of a Malaysian climber from Mount Annapurna after two nights in the open above 7,000 meters.
“It is only a matter of time until he completes his project, he has already proven his amazing capability,” said Mingma Sherpa of Seven Summit Treks, Purja’s expedition operator.
Raised in a village in the northwest district of Chitwan, Purja said he did not even have flip-flops growing up.
“My life story tells anyone who doesn’t have privilege to dream about bigger things. Anything is possible if you put your heart and mind and give 100 percent to it,” he said.
He also hopes to lift the standing of Nepali climbers — Sherpas who often work as guides for foreign climbers in the Himalayas — as he feels they are not “given the right credit.”
But there is a potential spanner in the works.
The Chinese government’s decision to close Mount Shishapangma for the season could potentially stymie Purja’s plans.
But efforts are underway to seek a special permission for him.
“Dealing with all sorts from admin, logistics, fundings and politics; now my climbing mode is ON,” he said on Facebook on Monday.