A different slice of life amid gloom


It was close to midnight in Yangon, about one hour before the start of the military-mandated curfew. The car workshops had long gone silent in this eastern industrial estate. But the party was just starting.

Youth clad in hoodies and sneakers thronged the narrow lane in front of a nightclub where security staff escorted patrons from their taxis to the entrance.

Inside, the dance floor was heaving. In a swirl of tobacco and cannabis smoke, a deejay in a baseball jersey and baggy trousers worked the crowd to a frenzy. At a 400,000 kyat (RM896) “VIP” table, a young woman giggled over white substance on a mobile phone screen.

Life in Myanmar’s economic capital thrums to a rhythm starkly different from the war-torn corners of the country.

In the borderlands of Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states, the military that ousted Myanmar’s civilian government in 2021 is defending a shrinking territory against ethnic armed groups and resistance forces that have emerged in response to its coup.

Some three million people have been forced to flee their homes, and poverty now afflicts one-third of its 55 million population – a level not seen since 2015. Inflation in the year to March 2024 was 26.5%, according to the World Bank.

The exodus of talent and labour has been worsened by the military’s bid to conscript civilians to shore up its depleted ranks.

In Yangon, however, new eateries and nightspots continue to sprout and at least one art gallery has opened, defying the gloom brought on by the military power grab three years ago.

In Sanchaung, a vibrant neighbourhood in north-central Yangon even before the coup, diners crammed into whitewashed interiors of cafes.

At People’s Park, a green sanctuary near the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, lovers canoodled in weathered seats. Claw machines did a roaring trade while the creaky roller-coaster thrilled the odd teenager or two.

Meanwhile, make-up artists, mattress companies and gemstone dealers taking part in a wedding exposition nearby vied for the attention of couples.

Myanmar’s moneyed and military-linked classes have long been able to insulate themselves from larger economic pressures, even during earlier periods of military rule that drew Western sanctions.

Still, in the affluent bubble of Yangon, signs of Myanmar’s deepening crisis are visible.

There are few tourists on the streets today. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic closed borders worldwide, Myanmar welcomed more than 4.3 million tourists. The number shrank to 1.28 million in post-pandemic 2023, according to the regime’s statistics.

Myanmar has remained under a state of emergency since the coup. While junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to hold fresh elections to replace what he claims was a fraudulent one in 2020, when and how this can be done remains a question.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the 79-year-old leader of the ousted National League for Democracy party, is serving a 27-year jail term over charges that are widely considered to be politically motivated.

Many countries have warned their citizens against visiting Myanmar since the coup.

The nearby Kyauktada Police Station, displaying a large sign declaring “May I Help You”, was surrounded by barbed wire barricades to deter insurgent attacks.

It was the same picture at Yangon City Hall, where a surly police officer clutching an umbrella in the driving rain shooed away pedestrians who strayed into a once-bustling adjacent street now closed to traffic.

Soldiers and police officers stood guard outside the premises of companies with close ties to the military.

Shunned by many countries after the coup, the junta has leaned into existing ties with Russia for political, economic and military support.

This has, in turn, brought a steady stream of Russian delegations, including a business delegation in May, seeking investment opportunities in Myanmar.

As a symbol of the tough economic fortunes, Sule Shangri-La, a towering landmark hotel in downtown Yangon that shut temporarily during the pandemic, has not reopened.

The owner of a bar in the city, who asked to be identified as Sweet, said she was earning just one-third of what she used to before the pandemic.

“Our bar was busy till 1am before. Now, we don’t have customers at 10pm. It’s partly due to the (1am to 3am) curfew. People are also afraid to go outside at night because of security concerns,” she said.

Another bar owner, who called himself Kyaw, said he was struggling to recruit staff to keep his business going.

“I’m having a shortage of staff because of the current conscription law. The young people of working age have left for foreign countries.”

Those who make it out of Myanmar are not sure when they can return. — The Straits Times/ANN

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