Connect to share and comment

After decades of human rights abuses, Myanmar's generals have recently freed political prisoners, reduced censorship and held limited elections — prompting countries to lift sanctions. But a year-long GlobalPost investigation has found that protests, violence and cronyism are testing Myanmar's reforms — and tarnishing the reputation of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Little king myanmar child labor 1
Nati Wai, or "Little King," lugs heavy bundles of fruit from boats to trucks seven days a week. The 15-year-old has worked the Yangon docks since he was 11. In Myanmar, child labor is a pillar of the economy. (Jonah M. Kessel/GlobalPost)

Youth interrupted: Underage, illiterate breadwinners

Inside Myanmar’s Dickensian child labor economy.


YANGON, Myanmar — Little King can’t read or write. Little King can’t tell you the name of his country’s president.

But he’s sturdy enough to balance heavy, spine-bending bundles of cargo atop his skull. Strong enough to tug dinghies loaded with bananas across the Yangon River’s mucky banks at low tide.

Down by the docks, where men work like mules, Little King can earn $3 per day.

He is a breadwinner, the primary supporter of a woman he adores and her two children.

But that woman is his mother. Those children are his sisters. Little King is just a kid.

“I’m not even interested in girls,” said Little King, real name: Nati Wai, son of a deceased dockworker. At the age of 11, he dropped out of school, stepped into his father’s role and became a dockworker himself. That was four years ago. “I already have a woman to take care of,” he said. “That’s my mother.”

The world is filled with boys and girls who lose their childhoods to hard labor. Roughly 215 million children on the planet work, according to the International Labor Organization, and more than half have jobs the ILO deems “hazardous.” 

That children slave away in Congo mines or stitch blouses in Bangladesh is known to everyone who follows the news.

But in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation formerly titled Burma, child labor is not a minor social blight. It is a pillar of the economy. And at this unique moment in the nation’s history, that economy is set to explode.

In international rankings, Myanmar is often cast alongside nations mired in anarchy or tyranny. Maplecroft, the UK risk analysis firm, ranks Myanmar’s child labor problem as the worst on the planet; worse even than in North Korea or Somalia.

And yet North Korea and Somalia are not newly minted darlings of the global investment scene. Somalia did not host a major World Economic Forum summit this year; Myanmar did. No one would say North Korea “feels like when the Berlin Wall came down,” which is how Coca-Cola’s CEO recently described modern-day Myanmar. Last year, US President Barack Obama flew to Myanmar to tell a packed university stadium that its youth could “determine the destiny of the fastest growing region of the world.”

Influential investment guru Jim Rogers, who built his fortune alongside former partner George Soros, was almost effervescent in a chat last summer with Forbes Magazine. “If I could put all of my money into Myanmar, I would,” he said. “They’re right between India on the left, China on the right. Huge natural resources. 60 million people, disciplined and hardworking ... It’s such an exciting opportunity.”

Only two years have passed since Myanmar’s despised military junta handed power to a partially elected parliament stacked with army loyalists in a grand experiment with liberalization. But what a difference two years can make: the police state is being dismantled, dissidents have been freed and decades-old Western sanctions have melted away. Long quarantined by paranoid generals, the growth-stunted nation has cut a sudden U-turn and now careens, for better or worse, into the globalized 21st century.

With the White House acting as cheerleader, American conglomerates are suddenly urged to invest in Myanmar’s economy, a fixer-upper ruined by decades of warfare and misrule.

But when they get here, they will find a labor force propped up by underage toil.

According to the United Nations, more than one-third of Myanmar’s children (defined as kids aged 7 to 16) have jobs.

Oddly enough, Little King feels grateful to be one of them.

There is another boy his age, nickname: Old Face, who lurks around the docks like a hungry wraith. While Little King gets paid to lug bushels of fruit, Old Face scours for loose bananas that have fallen in the mud. “My mom died when I was little. I never got breastfed,” said Old Face, a 15-year-old with a toothpick frame. “They say I’m too weak to lift heavy things.”

Little King — tiny, lithe but muscled — gets to eat all the bananas he wants. He usually takes one bite and throws the half-eaten remainder into the river. “Most of us working here started around 10 or 11 like him,” said Chit Lwin, 28, who sells