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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.
Modern-day feudalism drives income inequality at Pun Hlaing Golf Estate.
poverty and scratch out an existence through a dysfunctional agricultural sector that for most is tantamount to subsistence farming.
Nearby the gated community of mansions and elegant condos along the golf course, there is the Yangon International School where diplomats and international business executives send their children to school. And there is the new, state-of-the art Pun Hlaing Hospital, which is privately run. These two facilities are reserved for approximately 2,000 people who live inside the estate and some surrounding gated communities and high-end neighborhoods.
They are completely out of reach for the tens of thousands who are squatting on land in a shanty town right up on the edge of the golf course and within view of the beautiful new school and hospital. We spoke with one woman in the slum who described losing an infant to dengue fever because she could not get access to the private hospital and the child died before a rickshaw driver could pedal her and the baby to a clinic several miles away.
Thant Mynt U., an author and one of Burma’s leading intellectuals and founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust, said, “What you have seen at Pun Hlaing is a very stark example of a new kind of inequality.”
Sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Yangon, Thant Mynt U. continued, saying, “Up until the 1990s, there was not such a great level of inequality. In the last ten years I would say we have seen a very rapid rise in this inequality.
“That may be in part because of the sanctions,” he added, referring to the strict sanctions imposed by the United Nations during the brutal crackdown by Burma’s military on the pro-democracy movement prior to the current period of openness and new elections which have ushered Aung San Suu Kyi and other pro-democracy leaders to new levels of power.
“Those sanctions empowered a class of cronies and people connected to the military and it left those who were on the other side of that fence slipping deeper and deeper into poverty,” he added.
Chang Lim, the South Korean businessman, bought a three-bedroom condo at Pan Hlaing seven years ago for about $90,000. A real estate brochure in the club house confirms the unit would now be worth about $300,000. For a $50,000 club membership fee, Lim can come and relax a few months out of the year and break away from the business he runs building communication network towers around Asia.
We ran into Chang Lim inside the estate at a small, pool-side café where he was stretched out in a lounge chair. He was dressed in a lime green golf shirt, reading the Financial Times on an iPad 3 and listening to a play list with ear buds. Most of the time, he said, he lives in Seoul where he runs his company and in another vacation home in Canada. But he comes here to play golf with friends who have bought up the condos which until a few years ago were, he felt, quite reasonably priced.
Right now, all of the condo units are sold out. The homes here cost well over $250,000 with some of the units exceeding $1 million. The more expensive homes are sprawling mansions designed in the style of Palm Beach, Florida or Santa Barbara, California, consciously mimicking the architecture with white stucco, and red tile roofs and ornamental gates.
The changes in Burma in the last few years, Chang Lim says, are dramatic and they remind him of his native South Korea 30 years ago as it transitioned from military to civilian rule and took off as an economic powerhouse.
“Thirty years ago we were in the same situation. Change is coming here in a very rapid way, change for the better,” he says, confidently, stopping a waiter dressed in a black tie and vest for a fresh watermelon juice.
“We are a global economy so the country needs to open up to foreign investment. Labor charges are very cheap here,” he said, adding that his own company was considering a position in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Asked about the stark contrast between the poverty of the shacks along the road side that run right up along the fence to the golf course, he said, “The gap between the very rich and the very poor is growing. Absolutely. Growing wider and wider. These days, global commerce allows for some to make money quickly and they are rising quickly. And the poor who are staying poor are left very far down. And they are going further down.”
He smiled and checked a Rolex on his left wrist and began looking less comfortable with the conversation. The caddies on the course make about $5 a day. The men who hold shade umbrellas for golfers make about $1 a day. The grounds crew workers typically make about $3 on average.
Asked about this economic inequality just as the waiter returned with his watermelon juice in a tall glass, Lim sighed and said, “We can’t change it. We just follow the water’s way.”
Later the same day, on the other side of the fence we found Htun Kyaw, 43, who was just passing through the steel-gated laborer’s entrance at the end of a day which began at 6:30 a.m. and was ending just after 5 p.m.
Kyaw is a day laborer who earns approximately $3 per day tending to the drainage ditches that ring the golf course. He lives in a shack fashioned out of scraps of wood and thatch taken from palm trees. Through the cracks in the floor board there is a mosquito-infested swamp which he, his wife and four small children use as an open latrine.
“It’s the way it is,” he said, balancing his his shovel and pick axe on a rusty bicycle which he was walking through the mud pathways of the slum toward the shack. He carefully wrapped the tools in a soiled towel and hid them in a corner of the dwelling when he arrived home.
He sat on the rough wood floor to a meal of steamed vegetables on rice and we asked about the enormous economic divide between the members of the golf club and those who worked there and lived as he did in the slums. He and his wife looked at each other puzzled for a moment and then laughed slightly at the question.
“We are the people on this side. And they are the rich people on the other side. We are small and quiet. We will never catch up to them until death. We will never be equal until death,” said Kyaw.
His wife, Nu Nu Khaing, 27, who said she never went to school, underscored her husband’s statement, “When we die, everyone is equal.”