Living at the gates of Myanmar's 'industrial revolution'


YANGON, Myanmar — Myo Kyaw Aung had just started boiling the water for coffee when he mentioned the accident.

It was the middle of the night and he and his wife May Thu were fast asleep. Their four-year-old daughter quietly fell out the back of their one-room hut, slowly drowning in a pool of standing water just feet from where her parents lay.

“In the morning the police came and investigated,” said Myo Kyaw Aung, 39, whose wife who sweetly fanned his back as he spoke. “They did not charge us but my name is published in a criminal journal.”

The family migrated from the largely agricultural Delta region to Yangon two years ago, settling here in the Hlaing Thar Yar Industrial Zone, home to some of Myanmar’s biggest manufacturers — foreign and domestic — making products ranging from shoes to soda pop to allergy medicine. 

Hundreds of illegal residents have built scrap-metal shacks upon bamboo frames lining the dirt and gravel roads that pass the factories, many with barbed-wire gates and guard towers. Burmese from the Delta have been coming here in large numbers since 2008, when Cyclone Nargis killed an estimated 138,000 people and displaced many more, according to the UN Myanmar Information Unit. Residents of Hlaing Thar Yar say it’s not uncommon for children to drown here, particularly when the nearby Yangon River floods, as the homes are propped just a few feet above ground level.

Few of the illegal dwellers actually work in the factories, though some have established small shops and restaurants to serve workers who commute from around town as part of what one labor activist termed “Myanmar’s industrial revolution.” President Thein Sein announced last month that foreign investment in Myanmar has jumped five-fold in the past year, much of it in the garment manufacturing sector — a major presence here.

Myo Kyaw Aung is still paying back the loan he took out to pay for his daughter’s funeral earlier this year, working off-the-books construction jobs to slowly chip away at the debt. He points to a blue plastic helmet that sits upon an upside-down bucket in the front window of his home. He and his wife still look like teenagers in love as they sit close together on the floor of the breezeless room.

“To be an official construction worker, you need to get a card from the Ministry of Labor,” Myo Kyaw Aung says, explaining that he doesn’t have the paperwork he needs to do that: a state ID card, a genealogical record, a record of residency and a clean criminal history.

Instead he and local laborers wait at a nearby coffee shop for their contractor to pick them up in the mornings. Sometimes May Thu, 31, accompanies her husband to the job site but otherwise she stays home to keep house. Neither she nor her husband need mention that the house is much quieter since their daughter died.

Offering a sad smile, May Thu says they’re trying to have another child and eventually want to start a vending business. The couple moved soon after the accident. They now live two shacks down from the place that claimed their daughter. It was hard not to feel a shadow hanging over the place as life went musically by on the road outside.