Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Broken Economy, Burmese Improvise or Flee

RANGOON, Burma -- For the crowds of young Burmese outside the Immigration and Customs Office here, the commodity of choice is a shiny, tomato-red, cardboard-stiff new passport.

One recent morning, hundreds of men and women flooded in and out of the office, located on a rickshaw-crammed boulevard, or camped under umbrellas along the sidewalk to wait for their passport applications to be processed. Some scoured billboards that listed openings in garment factories, shipyards and other workplaces in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. The run on the passport office reflects a social crisis at the heart of an economy in free fall.

Sixty years ago, Burma, also known as Myanmar, was among the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia, outshining its neighbors with higher standards of living and greater social mobility. Its universities attracted students from across the region, and its rich stock of natural resources promised steady growth.
Today, more than a third of children are malnourished, the average household spends up to 70 percent of its budget on food, and more than 30 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, according to United Nations estimates.

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