Myanmar (Burma) Day 6: Mandalay
On this day, we were pretty tired and would have preferred to sleep in a bit, but we had to be at the airport by 8:15 A.M. to catch our flight to Mandalay. Fortunately, Bagan is one of those tiny airports where a few planes park out back and there are few formal procedures, so we could leave our hotel by 7:30 and still arrive in plenty of time. To our surprise, when we arrived we learned that our flight had been canceled but we had been moved to an earlier flight on a different airline, so there was virtually no wait. Go figure. Our flight to Mandalay was short and noneventful, flying on a clear blue sky on a bright and sunny morning. The clear, blue sky in Myanmar was nothing short of wonderful after China’s smog.
Ah, what a wonderful contrast that was! Freedom for a few days from smog! When one considers the cost of development, pollution and long term health issues for a population ought to be one of those costs. Sure, China has lots of development but at what cost to the humans who must swim in this smog? I think of Sophie, who has lost both parents to cancer, I’ve heard of too many cases of throat cancer, and I’ve read of soaring rates of asthma and chronic respiratory illness. One of my expat friends works for a company that has its own doctor on staff here for the employees. That doctor told my friend that as long as the expat lives in China five years or less, they think the health effects will be “reversible”. What about the people who are born here, live here, and die in this type of pollution?
I’ve read that London smog was horrific during the height of the industrial boom there, and surely American cities also reached that apex as well, prior to enactment of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. But why can’t countries just now developing learn from the mistakes of those who preceded them? China’s attitude is, “You did it, so now it’s our turn.” But why would one want a turn at choking smog, soaring cancer statistics, over reliance on oil energy, or highways clogged with gas guzzling private vehicles? All it takes is the political and economic will to insist, “This $3 incremental cost for environmental control is going to built into the cost of our product.” Why undercut the worldwide rate by 5 Euros if you can protect your environment and undercut the rate by just 2 Euros? Because the difference, 3 Euros, is lining the pocket of someone rich at the expense of millions of people who must live in the filthy environment. Someone is paying it, and the person paying is the ordinary person. Similarly, China already has a phenomenal public transportation infrastructure. Why not capitalize on that asset and expand it, rather than abandon that investment for private vehicles dependent upon foreign, Sudanese, oil?
Well, I am not a policy maker and it seems the cycle of building progress on the backs of those who have no power will continue. We learned during our trip that plenty of capital investment is pouring into Myanmar for factories and sweatshops. I can say sweatshops because Myanmar is where Korean, Chinese, and other Asian countries are now investing to take advantage of cheap labor. I didn’t personally see any horrific working conditions while I was in Myanmar, but given what I’ve heard and seen about Asian concern for their workers, I have no doubt that they exist. And also, because I know “cheap” is relative.
In Mandalay, we visited a factory where men worked all day hammering with 10 pound sledge hammers to make gold leaf. I asked what they got paid per day. The answer was $3,000 Kyet per day. (The reason I take this place out of the category of places with horrid working conditions is that the men were allowed to rest when they got tired.) The current exchange rate is about 1,200 kyet per dollar. So these men were hammering with sledge hammers all day for less than $3 per day. I’d say that’s cheap labor. How much are those men paying for their food; what kind of housing do they live in? I think I’d stick with life on the farm, myself. Sure, it can be hard, but there’s usually enough to eat.
And there’s also the rub. How does one define what is a good life? Enough food, clean water, and medical care to stay healthy, warm clothing, heat and hot water, opportunity for education, books to read? Where does one draw the line? Progress is a modern concept. For most of history, a child has literally followed in the footsteps of the parent. Change is not inevitable, and the values supporting a peasant life need not be rejected, if one has the basic necessities of whatever comprises “the good life.” How would you, yourself, define “the good life”? Surely part of that definition, however, has something to do with freedom and self determination. One of the causes of instability and dissatisfaction in ancient Rome, according to one of my college history professors, was the fact that in an effort to curb inflation and “brain drain” to the cities, ancient Rome attempted to limit a son’s occupation to that of his father. It didn’t go over so well.
From my readings, I gather that both sides of the government in Myanmar are ostensibly committed to staving off development that interferes with the traditional lifestyle and culture of the country. I can’t say if that’s true or not, and to verify this idea I’d have to do further research. However, it seems to me that the development of the country is at a crucial stage where it still may be possible to retain an older, village lifestyle and yet launch the population into 21st Century quality of living where it comes to food, shelter, and health care. An example of the type of development which is along these lines is the country of Bhutan, where the monarch gauges his success by a measure called “Gross National Happiness”. It’s worth thinking about. As we drove through Myanmar, I observed a lifestyle that was reminiscent of stories I’ve been told by my parents and grandparents about what it was like to live in the Deep South of the USA during the early part of the 20th Century – a lifestyle that has mostly disappeared in my own country as a result of governmental policy decisions that favor larger economic enterprises; a lifestyle which the French have chosen to preserve through the means of their farm subsidies to small, family farms. For Myanmar, like France and Bhutan, it’s not too late to retain that traditional way of life.