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Feast, famine on China-Burma border

A Burmese man pedals passengers in a rickshaw down the main street of Myawadi, Myanmar.

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: Burmese monks returned to the streets of Myanmar this week. It was the first march since the nation's ruling military opened fire on protesters last month. It's all part of the run up to a visit this weekend by United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari.

But many Burmese are probably too busy trying to eke out a living to take much notice. Burma is Asia's economic basketcase. It's also China's next door neighbor. Marketplace's Scott Tong recently traveled to the border, and witnessed a stark contrast between feast on one side, and famine on the other.


SCOTT TONG: Right now I'm standing on the China side of the Burmese border. There's a big hole in the fence which is supposed to separate the countries.

Now I just crossed over into Burma. And now I'm back into China. It's pretty porous.

Burmese natives are constantly trekking in and out of China: to do day labor, to buy everyday goods, to seek a better life. To them, China radiates like a high-definition color TV; while Burma trudges along in black and white.

On the Burma side, 20-something Ms. Duan works as a tour guide at this Buddhist temple. She says life isn't getting any better in one of the least developed countries on earth. Most of the country's 50 million people are just eking out a life, she says; they don't have much time to ponder protests and military crackdowns.

DUAN: It's always about the same here. In Burma, our farming sector is developed. But industry is completely undeveloped.

The Burmese don't make or export much, in part because of trade sanctions. So they import everything: from toothbrushes, to toilet paper, to cars.

DUAN: We import Japanese cars. Chinese cars cannot handle the tough dirt roads here in Burma.

The average Burmese makes about 200 U.S. dollars a year; folks in China make eight times that. U Ye Win is a Burmese export broker.

U YE WIN: It feels like the countries are opposite. China is moving forward so quickly, and Burma is going backwards.

The shoe used to be on the other foot. Early on in the 1900s, Burma was known as the "rice bowl" of Asia: rich in gemstones and agriculture and raw materials.

U YE WIN: In the old days, Burma was far better than China. Chinese folks used to utter the word "Burma" and start drooling. Now it's flipped.

The ruling military has turned the country into Asia's economic backwater. Ian Holliday of the University of Hong Kong says inflation, now 50 percent, renders Burma's currency increasingly worthless.

IAN HOLLIDAY: The official exchange rate to the U.S. dollar is six. The unofficial exchange rate is about 13 hundred.

You know get this, ten years ago Burma's top general made a bizarre currency decision. He introduced new bills, all multiples of nine. It was a lucky number according to his astrologer. Holliday says the junta has made some conventional mistakes too. They've not created reliable banking or tax systems, or manufacturing capacity.

That's been a big part of China's success across the creek. Beijing is Burma's biggest economic and military backer, and Holliday says China just can't understand why the Burmese generals are so inept.

HOLLIDAY: China does feel the best solution for Burma is precisely the solution that was developed in China itself. That is, concede as little as possible on the political front, and grow the economy underneath the authoritarian regime.

Holliday says the ruling junta is not just incompetent, it's corrupt. In fact, the nonprofit Transparency International just ranked Burma the most corrupt in the world.

Here on the Chinese side of the border, folks say Burmese officials simply steal stuff from the people. This young man buys motorcycles in China then smuggles them into Burma to resell them. Unless the bikes get confiscated.

BIKE SMUGGLER: If they're in a good mood they'll just fine us a few dollars. But if they're in a bad mood they'll take away our bikes.

This corruption and repression have created a sense of hopelessness that's prompted many people to get out of Burma. 25-year-old Kin Dwey traveled across Burma for three days to escape to China. She now gives massages, for 50 cents an hour.

KIN DWEY: The only way we could eat and feel full was to eat lots and lots of plain rice. We couldn't even consider eating chicken or fish, no way. But in China, I can afford lots of different food whatever I want.

Her coworker Ma Ju Ju left her husband and four sons back in Burma. Back in a house with bamboo walls and dirt floors. She, now shares a room in China above this massage parlor. Eight women sleep side by side on the floor, and to her it's a big step up.

MA JU JU: Every day in Rangoon we'd scrape and scrape to make 75 cents so we could eat. And then we'd go to sleep and wake up and start scraping all over again.

She hopes her family can someday join her in China, a place she describes as the promised land.

On the border between Burma and China, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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