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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 14:00 GMT
Burma's hollow gains
Ragoon fish market
Getting by each day is still tough for most people
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By Larry Jagan in Rangoon
BBC regional analyst
Burma has changed dramatically in the eight years since its military rulers last allowed me to visit - at least on the surface.

There has been an immense building boom in most major cities, particularly in the capital Rangoon. Massive hotels have shot up all over the city; new apartment blocks and houses are springing up in major towns.

There are far more cars, taxis and trucks on the roads than ever before.

These outward trappings of affluence mask the reality for ordinary Burmese still struggling to survive

And despite the fact that many of the capital's roads are wide, the English term traffic jam has entered the local language since there is no Burmese equivalent.

Advertising billboards are everywhere. There is an abundance of food-stuffs and consumer goods in the shops, markets and street stalls. And Chinese goods are flooding in, especially toys and electrical goods.

You can find the old Hollywood classics, Japanese films and all the latest block-busters - available on digital DVDs, all produced in China.

Harsh reality

But these outward trappings of affluence mask the reality for ordinary Burmese still struggling to survive.

Cars in Rangoon
Rangoon's latest attraction: Traffic jams
Begging is rare, but the signs of growing poverty are evident, especially in outlying suburbs or townships in Rangoon.

Every Burmese you speak to in the street has a similar story to tell.

They are unemployed or work only part-time and cannot afford to send their children to school because, although it is nominally free, they have to pay for textbooks and give the teachers gifts.

And if anyone falls sick they dare not go to a doctor because they cannot afford the medicines they will be prescribed.

Along the roads, there are clusters of policemen: not controlling the traffic, but stopping motorists to collect what is called "tea money" or bribes - otherwise they write out a ticket for some imaginary offence.

Gambling has exploded throughout the country

"It's more than doubled in the last 12 months" several taxi drivers told me.

Even at the airport, when changing currency, the tellers unashamedly offer to help the incoming tourist beat the legal exchange requirements in return for some 'help' in return - it cost me $10.

Gambling has exploded throughout the country over the past six months.

Millions of kyat a month are being spent on the official lottery, according to analysts in Rangoon.

But even more is being spent in Rangoon's illegal gambling dens. The latest craze is to bet on the last three numbers of the Thai lottery draw.

"This shows the depths of desperation people have fallen to," a Burmese economist working for a foreign company told me.

Gambling's popularity can be clearly charted against the economic collapse.

"When the kyat plummets against the dollar." he said, "the more people turn to gambling to try and make their fortune."

New rich

Some people in Rangoon are doing well.

Many are driving brand new, imported cars. Discos, bars and karaoke clubs have mushroomed, frequented by children of the elite.

Street market
Consumer goods are flooding in from China
These are rowdy places, with brawls often breaking out between inebriated youths in the early hours.

Nevertheless, Rangoon residents say the city is still probably one of the safest cities in the world.

A well known Burmese businessman, Michael Pun, says he has moved his whole family to Burma because he wants his children to grow up in safety rather than leave them in Hong Kong or the US.

But petty crime and prostitution is on the rise.

Hooliganism and vandalism is also increasing.

A recent concert by one of the new, local rock bands, the Iron Cross, ended in chaos when people at the back threw chairs at those standing in front blocking their view.

The constant refrain is: "We're not interested in politics, it's too dangerous"

Authorities thought of banning their performances, but instead made sure there was no loose furniture in concert venues.

The impact of so-called 'MTV culture' is evident in other ways.

Young people now sport jeans and women are in skimpy Western tops. No longer are traditional longhis to be seen everywhere.

Western pop music blares from car radios and stereos on street corners. And local musicians and singers have been quick to produce Burmese versions of many of the most popular Western songs.

The young are no longer interested in politics.

Everyone hates the military government - that is taken as read by anyone you speak to, from taxi drivers and bell boys to stall holders and school children in the streets.

But the constant refrain is: "We're not interested in politics, it's too dangerous."

See also:

21 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Burma's opposition slowly rises from ashes
18 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Behind Burma's 'non-coup'
19 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Burma's secret talks
02 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Inside Burma: Opposition fights on
30 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Aung San Suu Kyi meets Burma general
12 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Burma's generals feel the heat
10 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma's military 'supports democracy'
05 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma's slow road to reform
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