Poverty and Plenty in Burma's Arid Heartland

By Lawi Weng 15 December 2012

NATMAUK, MAGWE DIVISION — They call it “sky beer,” and in the dry zone of central Burma, it’s cheaper than water.

At 200 kyat (US $0.25) a bottle, htan yay, or palm juice, is just half the price of purified water. Left to ferment, it also has a bit of a kick.

In Magwe District, a remote and almost completely undeveloped part of Burma some 650 km north of Rangoon, that makes this the drink of choice for many local people.

But palm juice, or toddy as its fermented version is known, is not the only blessing that comes from the palm trees that cover this desiccated region of Upper Burma. The trees bring some welcome shade to an otherwise sun-blasted landscape, and are also one of the few sources of income in the area.

Jaggery, the sugar made from the sap of the palm trees, is sold throughout Burma as an essential ingredient in many traditional dishes. For generations, local people have made a living tapping the trees for their sweet sap, both for their own consumption and to sell in the market.

“I climb 50 trees a day. It’s easy for me, and I can earn at least 1,500 kyat [$1.75] a day,” said U Htwe, a palm tapper living in Natmauk, in eastern Magwe District.

With the money he earns from shinnying up the vertiginously tall trees, U Htwe says he can even afford to put his daughter through university in the town of Magwe, the state capital.

Myint Oo, another local resident, prefers to stay closer to the ground. He grows beans, which he says fetch around 7,000 kyat ($8.25) per viss (around 1.65 kg). He says an acre of land will produce 30 to 40 viss, depending on the amount of rainfall.

While such subsistence earnings may be enough to keep older people in the region, however, they fall far short of meeting the needs of the young. That’s why many leave, often seeking work abroad.

“It’s a hard life here for those who can’t find work,” said Zay Nee, 68. “Lots of young people go to Mandalay, and then on to China, like my 18-year-old grandson.”

When opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited this region last weekend, she acknowledged that it had been largely left behind in Burma’s recent rush to catch up with its neighbors after decades of isolation. Indeed, most of the country outside of Rangoon and Naypyidaw (which is much closer to Natmauk, but a world away in terms of development) remains untouched by progress.

Speaking to residents of Natmauk, where her father, independence hero Aung San, was born, Suu Kyi said that if she could give the people of this region anything, it would be better transportation. As anyone who has ridden one of the few buses running between Natmauk and Magwe can attest, the need for better means of getting around is indeed dire.

But decent roads and new buses to replace the decrepit, overloaded ones now on the road (often with passengers precariously perched on top) are not the only basic necessities lacking here. As in much of the rest of Burma, electricity is also in extremely short supply—something that Suu Kyi also alluded to in her speech.

For visitors, however, there is an unmistakable charm to this forgotten corner of a country that is fast becoming a magnet for world travelers. The banks of the Irrawaddy River offer classic Burmese vistas, complete with pagodas and scenes from centuries past: fishermen plying the river in their boats, while nearby, farmers plow their fields with cattle.

Whether this will be enough to attract a sizable share of the foreigners who are now coming to Burma in record numbers is another matter, however. For now, those who live here must be content with what the earth—and the sky—has to give them. It may be a long time yet before the rest of the world finally discovers this place, and brings with it the mixed blessings that inevitably come with development.