Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

With No One on the Streets to Make Merit, a Myanmar Bird Seller Struggles to Get By

HTET WAI The Irrawaddy

YANGON—Though Myanmar’s commercial hub has been uncharacteristically silent lately amid the government’s COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, U Sein Myint has continued to make his way each morning to Hledan in the Yangon University neighborhood, shouldering a wire cage filled with sparrows. And while the city’s soaring COVID-19 caseload and steadily climbing death toll have persuaded most people to stay within the confines of their homes, that’s a luxury the 60-year-old can’t afford. As the breadwinner for his family, including two children aged 11 and 13, the bird seller of Hledan needs money to put food on the table.

With life in the once-bustling neighborhood put on hold and its streets emptied by the second wave of COVID-19, demand for U Sein Myint’s services has all but dried up. Working until evening, sometimes he barely sells a single sparrow. Back in what now seem like the good old days, before the virus hit Yangon, he typically sold around 80 sparrows at 500 kyats per head each day to those looking to make merit by releasing the captive birds. In predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, it is a traditional belief that one can gain merit by releasing caged birds.

U Sein Myint has been making his living this way for five years and says he now knows no other way to eke out a living for his family. That’s why he continues to appear every day in Hledan with his caged birds, occasionally in the company of his son or daughter, exposing them and himself to the risk of infection by the deadly coronavirus, which has killed 471 people in Myanmar so far.

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