Burma’s Story, Told by One Crumbling Building

By Tim Sullivan 30 October 2014

RANGOON — The little apartment building was graceful once. Maybe even beautiful. There is an elegance in the arched windows now covered with grime. It’s there in the ornamental pillars, coated with paint so faded that it’s hard to say if the building is yellow or white. It’s there in the wide windows kept open through the endless hot months, bringing in the breeze from the nearby Rangoon River.

The building whispers of a past. Of solid middle-class lives. Of a cosmopolitan, colonial city that was once a great Asian crossroad, the capital of a country once called Burma. But that was a long time ago.

These days, in the late afternoons when the breeze starts to pick up, two old friends carry out plastic chairs to sit in front of a building now battered by time and monsoons and history. They talk about the neighborhood and their children. They worry about money.

Tin Win has spent 67 years in the building on 41st Street, moving in when he was 6 years old. His friend Round Namar isn’t sure how long it’s been. Sixty-five years? Seventy? “All I know,” Namar says, shrugging, “is my mother told me I was born here.”

All those years, the two have lived next door to one another, in narrow ground-floor apartments, each a little bigger than a shipping container.

From here, they watched the birth of an independent Burma, the first coup d’état and the rise of the military juntas. They watched as generals turned Burma into a poverty-battered international pariah, and as 2010 semi-democratic elections nudged a few generals aside. In the past couple years they have seen construction cranes blossom across this city, a place which had seemed frozen into a crumbling echo of British colonial life.

They have also watched the building’s residents change around them. Today, there’s the strutting young print-shop manager and the sweatshop workers who look as young as 11. There’s the housewife, the barely employed physicist and the hotel laundress who came from the countryside, riding a bus for 12 hours in search of something more than grinding farm work. Some are close friends. Many barely recognize one another.

This is the story of one apartment building, two stairwells, 12 tiny apartments and the 60 or so people who live in them. In many ways, it is little different from hundreds of other buildings scattered across Rangoon. But listen closely enough in these apartments, and you can hear the story of a country caught at a historical precipice, wavering between a decades-long era of brutal military rule and the promise of some vague new golden age.

On 41st Street, it is a moment so complicated that even the most basic questions are confounding.

Differing Perspectives

The handsome young man leans over a small desk on the building’s ground floor, absently surfing the Web as printing presses clatter around him.

Aung Phyo Win has a life that many young Burmese would envy. He goes to dance clubs at expensive Rangoon hotels and spends much of his time at work playing on the computer. He races cars with his friends in the city’s streets. He is 28 and dreams of promoting hip-hop shows. His family, by the building’s standards, is well off. Some own cars. They come to 41st Street only to work, living in nicer neighborhoods.

He believes fiercely in the new Burma.

His country is democratic, he’ll tell you. Look at the elections of 2010 and the new political parties. Look at the protests. Small protests are now regular occurrences in front of Rangoon’s City Hall, with a couple dozen people railing against illegal land seizures or high electricity rates. Just a few years ago, those protests would have been met with arrests or even gunfire.

Yes, Aung Phyo Win acknowledges, the army could end the protests anytime it wants. It still wields immense power. “They just don’t want the bad publicity overseas,” he says.

As he talks, an elderly employee who sweeps the press-shop floor sits transfixed in front of a television. She’s watching “Psycho” on cable TV, the sound turned up loud. Janet Leigh is screaming.

Yes, he acknowledges again, some people are still too frightened to talk politics. Not him, though. The young men who go clubbing with him offer Burma-style protection. “I don’t worry,” he says. “I’m friends with the sons of generals.”

But one after another, his neighbors in the building turn conversations away from anything political or ask that their names not be used. Many still talk about politics in whispers, and only with their closest friends.

“The generals, they still control everything,” said one resident, an older man. “There is democracy the world over today. But Burma?” He paused, and shrugged. “Maybe someday.”

So much in Burma’s history has been about fear.

During the five decades of junta rule, tens of thousands of people were imprisoned for political crimes. Torture was commonplace. Activists disappeared into prisons, reappearing years later as twitching shadows. Foreign journalists were effectively barred. Protests were crushed. For three generations, children were taught not to speak about anything sensitive. Informants, they were told, were everywhere.

But the junta was also increasingly desperate for international respect and an end to crippling trade sanctions. Quiet discussions about democratic changes led to the release of the Nobel-winning pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, and then to the carefully orchestrated 2010 elections, when former Gen. Thein Sein was elected president.

Four years later, the country’s political culture can appear upended.

Those protests are now regular occurrences, and a welter of independent newspapers have opened. Opposition parties are growing. While some political prisoners still sit in Burma’s jails, hundreds have been freed. The junta’s former spymaster, once a deeply feared man known as the Prince of Darkness, now runs a small Rangoon art gallery and cafe where cappuccino sells for US$2.50 a cup.

But despite all that, the military-backed party remains in control and the army has the constitutional right to dissolve Parliament. A mysterious circle of current and retired generals is widely thought to weigh in on all important government decisions. While press freedoms are theoretically protected, journalists are regularly harassed by the authorities and sometimes arrested. Reporters also acknowledge avoiding certain topics, including the wealth of the generals and the often-raucous behavior of their sons and grandsons.

The confusion is evident on 41st Street. Most often, it is evident in what is left unsaid. Even between friends.

“We come out here to talk about everyday things,” says Namar, her voice rising nervously, as she and Tin Win sit in front of the building late one afternoon. “We don’t talk about politics.”

Her extended family, 11 people crowded into an apartment carved into closet-sized rooms, is among the building’s poorest. They depend on what she and two daughters earn selling snacks on the street, and a son-in-law’s work as a mechanic. They have almost nothing, but she will not risk losing any of it with some stray political comment.

When Namar isn’t around to get nervous, though, Tin Win sometimes wades into questionable territory.

He’s a cheerful dandy, a former neighborhood playboy who dons a clean shirt and carefully oils his combover before his afternoon gossip sessions. He married late in life, and he flirts with passing women as his much younger wife rolls her eyes.

Talking politics one afternoon, he points to the narrow but well-paved road that runs in front of the apartment. For decades it was little more than a swath of potholes and pitted cement.

But just before the 2010 elections, the military-backed USDP party came through the neighborhood, announcing they would fix it. The repair may have improved his neighborhood, but he sees it as a betrayal.

“They did it for the votes,” he growls, and spits out a final word. He makes it sound like a curse: “Elections.”

An Ethnic Tapestry

The oldest residents of 41st Street can remember back to World War II, and hearing their parents whisper about the Japanese soldiers who then occupied the city. They remember the return of the British near the war’s end, and the celebrations at independence in 1948.

What they don’t remember are many Burmese.

Rangoon was then barely one-quarter ethnic Burmese. The city’s top hotel was run by Armenians; the best bakery was German. The city had Jews from Baghdad and teak traders from Azerbaijan. The British were at the top of the social pyramid, but the city’s largest populations were Chinese and Indian.

The British, long accustomed to Indians from their largest colony, brought thousands to take low- and mid-level jobs in Burma’s bureaucracy, and to work in British companies. Chinese immigrants dominated the business world.

The Burmese were shunted aside, their anger quietly festering.

In those days, 41st Street was the heart of Rangoon’s Indian Quarter, where middle-class immigrant businessmen and civil servants lived in apartment buildings that often echoed the Edwardian extravagance of the British colonials.

Inside, though, families often followed traditions that stretched back centuries.

“We lived in the old ways,” says Fawrile. She’s about 68, and sits in a chair with her legs pulled beneath her. She has only one name. Her father was a wealthy trader in timber and spices, a modern man with a business empire, extensive real estate holdings and armies of servants. But as a Muslim woman, she was rarely allowed to leave the house. “I didn’t even know what was going on out there,” she says.

The rise of the junta upended that world.

Bitterness against the Indians and Chinese was often encouraged by military governments looking for scapegoats for the country’s slide into poverty. Starting in the 1960s, thousands of Indians were expelled from the country or, like Fawrile’s father, had their businesses nationalized. Anti-Chinese riots shook the city starting in 1967.

Today, Fawrile lives with her nephew, a taxi driver, in the family’s last apartment, a top-floor place where the breeze blows through a thin curtain and a grand-nephew sleeps on a mat on a lazy morning, wearing pajamas that say “Dog-Ass Tired.”

The building, like Fawrile’s family, is far from what it once was.

With each decade, gentility gave way a little more. The sprawling apartments were divided, and often divided again. Poor Chinese moved to the neighborhood, then poor Burmese. The 137 steps leading to the top floor became worn, grass sprouted from the rooftop. With every monsoon, more leaks opened in the roof.

These days, there’s a tangled mix of ethnicities inside. At times, the building it has witnessed profound tolerance, like when Namar’s family hid Tin Win’s during waves of anti-Chinese violence.

But the building, like Burma itself, is no happy melting pot. The country’s divisions are byzantine, producing everything from jingoistic political parties to ethnic armies.

Now, years of ethnic distrust are being magnified in Rangoon by the city’s growth, as poor villagers flood in from the countryside in search of work.

On 41st Street, that distrust echoes.

Ma Yi Win came to Rangoon three years ago, moving into a tiny top-floor apartment with her husband and two roommates. All are ethnic Burmese, refugees from rural villages.

“We don’t know the neighbors,” says Ma Yi Win, a small friendly woman worn by exhaustion. “And the whole street is full of Indians, so I don’t want to be friends with them.”

In Ma Yi Win’s apartment, the linoleum floor is worn away. Buckets catch leaks from the ceiling. On one wall, earlier renters have written a message in English: “I wish you were here with me, just this moment.” Taped to another wall is a glossy poster showing a mansion with an impossibly green lawn.

Her husband, a thin man given to long silences, lights a cigarette. They dreamed for years of escaping the drudgery of home, where a year of work brought just a few hundred dollars at harvest time.

“Where I come from, in my village, there’s only farming,” she says. “If you want to do anything else, then you have to leave.”

A few years ago that began to change. The 2010 elections marked a watershed in Burma. Sanctions fell away and tourists poured in.

The city, where for decades nothing seemed to change, began stumbling into the global economy. Rangoon now has a Ford dealership and a 10-story-tall Coke billboard. It has jetlagged American executives spilling from the airport, dreaming of a vast untapped market. It has sketchy businessmen who build sprawling mansions and high walls.

But on 41st Street, the newcomers’ dreams are far more modest. A job. A salary. Maybe some savings.

Ma Yi Win found work at the laundry of a nearby hotel catering to businessmen with limited expense accounts. The hours are long, but she earns about $100 a month, an enormous salary back in the plains.

The city both thrills her and frightens her. It has everything: wealth and poverty, gangsters and holy men. It has those Indians who make her nervous.

“When I was young, back in the village, I didn’t know about anything,” she says. Pride fills her words: “Now I know about so much.”

Such talk is common among the building’s newcomers, most of them recent arrivals from the poorest parts of Burma. They don’t hope for much, but they still see the city as a way to get ahead.

The older families, though, are often lost in happier memories. They barely see the new buildings and the new cars. Their dreams are of somewhere else. If not for themselves, then for their children.

“Our smart young people want to go abroad. To Singapore, or Malaysia,” says Cho Win, a gray-haired resident living on the second floor. “They know what life is like here.”

He talks in careful sentences and keeps his eyeglasses on a chain around his neck. His laugh is bitter. His parents were government servants, middle-class people who expected him to move up in the world. Once, long ago, he hoped his physics degree would earn him a place in academia, or maybe work as a scientist.

But he graduated from college in the 1970s, when Burma’s economy barely functioned at all. He spent almost a decade unemployed before becoming a tutor for high school students. Today, he and his wife survive on his earnings as a freelance tour guide, and her $100 monthly salary as a middle school teacher.

Their son is 21, a seaman’s apprentice on a cargo ship. Last they heard he was in Panama.

Life, they say, is better out there. They don’t want him to come back.

Old and New

So much has changed in Burma. So much has not.

Every few months, change also comes to 41st Street. Aung Phyo Win, the print-shop manager, left his job after a series of family arguments. The gold workshop moved away. Ma Yi Win and her roommates, the rural émigrés, are gone. They didn’t tell their neighbors where they went.

But when the hot weather comes, Tin Win and Namar can still be found out front, often sitting there deep into the night, talking to one another or to people passing by. Sometimes, they just sit silently.

There are only a couple streetlights on 41st Street, and those rarely work. So at night, the only light outside is what spills from the apartments. But the two friends don’t mind the darkness.

The street is quieter then. More like the old days. And now when they do go inside, there is electricity most of the time. They can change for bed without lighting a lantern. They can watch TV long into the night.

Just a few years ago, they couldn’t depend on that. It’s hard to see that as an accomplishment, they say, but it is something.

It’s one tiny change in a new Burma, a country shuffling awkwardly away from its own uneasy history, one building at a time.