Magazine article New Internationalist

A Day in the Life - with Interest

Magazine article New Internationalist

A Day in the Life - with Interest

Article excerpt

A small boy with enormous eyes pushes a beat-up bike through the unpavcd streets of Hlaing Tharyar, a township outside of Rangoon. In his hand, he clasps the equivalent of just over $1.70 in grubby local kyat notes. His name is Chit Thaw and he just turned eleven. This morning he is headed to the local pawnshop.

For Chit Thaw, borrowing money is a daily chore. His first loan takes place before breakfast, when he borrows 5,000 kyat (around $5) from a neighbour. It must be paid back with 10 per cent interest by the end of the day - which works out to a staggering annual percentage rate of 3,650 per cent. Without a regulated system for borrowing money, the vast majority of Burmese people have no access to formal credit at all. Informal moneylenders and pawnshops are at the heart of half the population's lives.

The money in Chit Thaw's sweatv hand this morning is from the $5 loan of earlier that day. Every morning he takes the borrowed money and rides his family's bike, standing upright to reach the pedals, across a bridge to a nearby market to buy fish paste. Fish paste, one of the staples of Burmese cooking, is a fermented, pungent mush that accompanies everything from breakfast noodles to soup.

It takes Chit Thaw over two hours to fetch the fish paste. In the cool time before sunrise he rides, past wood and tin shacks glowing with candlelight or the quiet of households still asleep. On the journey back, he passes empty fields covered with hand-washed plastic bags flapping in the wind, like injured birds stranded in the sun. In Hlaing Tharyar, plastic bags, just like everything else, have a price and these will be sold to brokers for recycling.

Chit Thaw takes the fish paste to his mother, who sits all day at her spot on the dusty ground of the market near their home. By the end of the day, they hope to have made back the 5,000 kyat plus interest. Even if they temporarily escape from the daily grind of debt, all it takes is one visit to the doctor, a particularly strong storm damaging their flimsy roof, a funeral or a wedding and they are once more pushed into the hands of the loan sharks and pawnshops.

'Every day we borrow, unless we have a good sale offish paste on a Sunday,' Chit Thaw explains. 'We make the money a day at a time. Sometimes, we don't have enough for rice, but we pay back the money.' On those days when there is no money for food, Chit Thaw, his mother and his two sisters drink a glass of water to fill their bellies before they go to bed.

The pawnshop

Chit Thaw pushes his bike hard to keep the stubborn wheels moving, eventually reaching a smart green building - the pawnshop. It is cleaner and sturdier than any of the other buildings on the block. Back from the wholesale market, it is into this building that Chit Thaw heads.

Unlike downtown Rangoon, the British didn't build their grand four-storey terraces and colonial buildings in Hlaing Tharyar. It is a sprawling mass of tin, tarpaulin and wood, linked to the garment, battery and soap factories of Rangoon by ferries that pick their way across the grey river to collect the young women workers every morning and night. Open sewage, erratic electricity and dirty water mark the routines of daily life. What it lacks in crumbling charm it makes up for in the industriousness of its inhabitants.

The cottage industries here flourish despite, rather than thanks to, the country's military junta, which took power in 1962 and which with stage-managed elections this month will likely continue to rule the roost. The junta has mismanaged the economy for decades. It failed to put adequate controls on the banking system, which meant that, in 2002-03, almost every bank was implicated in international money laundering. The result was almost every bank was closed.

Financial institutions fundamentally rely on trust in the government, something that few people have in a country where the government once made an overnight decision to devalue certain bank notes because of an astrologer's predictions that those denominations were unlucky. …

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