'Heaven and hell' side by side in Burma

A resident at the Pun Hlaing Golf Estate, a high-end golf community outside of Yangon, Burma. Adjacent to this wealthy enclave is a dirt poor community of thousands who live without running water, toilets or properly built structures.
Ed Kashi/VII

Editor’s Note: In the parlance of golf, it’s called ‘playing through.’

And the phrase seems a fitting way to describe how a wealthy, global elite manages to bypass the often harsh inequalities that exist at many of the most expensive, members-only golf clubs around the world.

The well-to-do who can afford the expensive course fees only rarely recognize just how vastly different life is for those who toil on the grounds or carry the golf bags and live below the poverty line. GlobalPost set out to explore this divide in the highest realms of golf, from a course designed by Gary Player on the desperately poor outskirts of Myanmar’s capital Yangon to the Trump International Golf Club in a deeply divided West Palm Beach, Florida.

Caddies, for example, who carry the golf bags for members at Trump International are paid a base rate of approximately $100 per day — about $24,000 per year — at Palm Beach with a membership fee of $250,000 reveals a disparity of wealth that is pretty much on par with the up to $1,250 a year that a caddie makes in one of Myanmar’s top courses compared to the $50,000 membership fees there.

From the golf courses of Palm Beach to Myanmar, GlobalPost found jarring levels of inequality between those who can afford membership and those who work on the course.

HLAING THARYAR, Myanmar — A sprawling slum clings so close to the Pun Hlaing Golf Estate that errant drives from the tee can sometimes land on the thatched roofs of the shacks where 30,000 desperately poor people live amid squalor, open sewers and widespread disease.

There is one row of hovels in particular that back up to a moat of black slime and garbage and run right up against a thick hedgerow and chain link fence that separate the slum from the golf course. From here, the view offers a glimpse into the lush, green fairway and the $1 million mansions made of stucco and red tile roofs that line Myanmar’s most exclusive course. It was designed by the South African golf legend Gary Player and membership fees start at $50,000.

The fetid warrens of the slum lead to the back entry of the golf course and a steel gate which is operated by uniformed guards who slide it open in the morning to allow a small army of laborers — men carrying shovels and rakes and women in cleaning uniforms — into the grounds.

And at the end of the day, as the workers trudge back into this slum where they live, the guards slam the gate behind them. The golf estate operates as a kind of feudal system in which plutocrats from China, South Korea, the United Kingdom (and increasingly the United States) come to play golf at approximately $100 a round on a course where the caddies average about $5 a day. The groundskeepers make no more than $3 a day.

“Here is heaven and there is hell,” said Chang Lim, a successful South Korean businessman and Pun Hlaing member, nodding to the direction of the slum which was invisible from inside the golf course.

“I asked God all the time, ‘What makes it so different for those on the outside and those of us inside living like this?’” said Lim, 61, his arms outstretched to take in the exclusive club’s grass tennis court, the swimming pool and the nearby spa.

Myanmar is one of the poorest countries on the planet and through several decades of military rule it has been largely closed off to the world. So there is little economic data that can provide a clear picture of where Myanmar, also known as Burma, lands on the Gini Index, which measures income inequality.

But economists here say it is a safe bet that the data will reveal a country that may rank among the very highest in terms of income inequality in the world, a place where Chinese venture capitalists partner with the military elite to operate some of the world’s richest jade and copper mines. Where logging magnates rip through forests of teak and sell it at top dollar around the world. And where the vast majority of people — two-thirds by some estimates — live in deep, rural 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.”

This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.