As Myanmar Modernizes, Old Trades Are Outpaced By New Competitors

YANGON, Myanmar — For years they poured out their hearts on the broken pavements of Myanmar’s cities and towns, young lovers desperate for privacy yet with no choice but to use what the Burmese call roadside phone shops.

Daw Myint Myint Than, who rents out her two phone lines in central Yangon, has heard it all: the sobbing, heartbroken women; the angry spouses; the duplicitous boyfriends who gush sweet nothings to one girlfriend, hang up and repeat the same sweet nothings to another.

“I have lost all faith in men,” said Ms. Myint Myint Than, who sat on a plastic stool impatiently wiggling her silver-painted toenails as her customers chatted away.

Roadside phone shops — actually no more than a tiny table on the sidewalk and a few push-button phones — flourished in Myanmar when the former military junta set the price of obtaining a cellphone at thousands of dollars.

But as this country opens to the world, the phone rental business is losing customers quickly, one of a number of antiquated trades that are disappearing from a rapidly modernizing country. Who needs a roadside phone shop when you can now buy a cheap cellphone and call from anywhere you want?

The list of soon-to-be obsolete professions is growing: The typewriter clerks who sit outside courthouses and government offices are losing ground to computers and email. The mimeograph machines and a whole neighborhood of men who manually carve rubber stamps are being replaced by laser printers, scanners and photocopiers.

In every society, professions disappear in the name of progress. But the pace of change in Myanmar, where army generals introduced a form of democracy two years ago, has been compressed into months, not decades.

“The typewriting business is bad,” said Daw Nwe Sanda, who was at an outdoor shop in Yangon, where the clack-clack-clack of manual typewriters fills the air. “We still have our regular customers. But someday computers will replace all of this.”

Myanmar today feels caught between centuries. A clerk next to Ms. Nwe Sanda paused at her typewriter, picked up her smartphone and browsed Facebook.

Shiny new cars pass her stall, which sits in front of a moss-covered, five-story British colonial building that is so dilapidated that large plants grow out of cracks in the facade.

To tourists who hail from more orderly, sanitized societies, Myanmar’s street life can be charming.

On the sidewalks of Yangon, radishes are shredded, corn is steamed, coconuts are hollowed out and stalks of sugar cane are crushed into juice. Vendors sell knickknacks. On one stretch of sidewalk, they hawk teacups, used knives, Chinese-made plastic toys, two types of rat poison and a large pile of dusty, secondhand TV remote controls.

The streets are cacophonous, crowded and colorful. But the charm is lost on some here. It is more like desperation, said U Say Thu, who has made rubber stamps on a Yangon street corner for the past decade.

“No one would choose to work on the roadside,” said Mr. Say Thu, who tries to support his wife and children on an income of about $200 a month. “We would prefer to be indoors.”

It took him almost a year to master the art of hand-carving rubber stamps, which companies used for decades to give their correspondence an official imprimatur. But finding customers is getting harder, Mr. Say Thu said. He works with his back to a wall that is covered in green fungus across the street from Sule Pagoda, the golden Buddhist shrine in central Yangon.

“My profession is in danger,” he said. “It’s hard to make ends meet.”

A few blocks away is another trade that seems bound for obsolescence: the “ice water ladies” who offer to quench the thirst of customers with a block of ice that drips through a sock into a pitcher of water. Two wrinkled women compete for business by clanging metal cups together. Their main threats, convenience stores that sell bottled water, are opening across the country.

Life in Yangon is moving indoors. Investors paved over a huge cemetery a few years ago and built Junction Square, a giant shopping mall.

Office buildings and hotels are under construction across the city. Air-conditioned supermarkets carry delicacies like Roquefort cheese from France and apples from the United States.

Once a relatively scarce luxury, air-conditioning is everywhere now, in the form of newly imported cars. After decades when buying a car was beyond the reach of all but the wealthy, the government has allowed a flood of imports.

A significant portion of Yangon’s population now spends lots of time shielded from the tropical heat — in traffic jams.

The new cars replaced what populated Myanmar’s streets before the country opened up: decades-old Japanese-made cars held together by the ingenuity of mechanics who welded their own spare parts, and used needles and thread to repair torn engine hoses.

But those resourceful mechanics can barely contain their bafflement as they stare under the hoods of the new cars, in which microprocessors control everything.

“It’s a big problem,” said U Zaw Ye Win, who last year helped open Engine Doctor Engineering, a company that trains old mechanics in the ways of modern autos. Four decades of advances in automotive technology have cascaded into the country over the past two years. Myanmar’s mechanics, like grease-monkey Rip Van Winkles, are trying to grasp the finer points of computer diagnostics.

Mr. Zaw Ye Win, who was trained to be a mechanical engineer, is a good example. He spent 12 years as a political prisoner for defying the military junta and was released during an amnesty in 2011. When he emerged from jail, he had never sent an email, owned a mobile phone or used a web browser, let alone Google. He has quickly caught up.

“Many mechanics don’t know how to use a laptop,” he said. “We explain it slowly.”

Source: The New York Times

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