One such individual we meet in Mandalay is Than Kyi, a charming and intelligent unemployed travel agent who’s been out of work for nearly a year. We meet him under the shade of an old tamarind tree in a quiet monastery near the city’s produce market; it’s a cool, quiet spot and we end up chatting for an hour or so.
Thanks to Cyclone Nargis in 2005 and the shooting of a few monks during a peaceful demonstration over gas prices last year, there’s been little demand for travel agents recently and he’s not hopeful of finding a new job any time soon.
He fills his time praying at the payas and monasteries in the mornings and drinking tea with his friends in tea shops in the afternoons, scratching a living by helping his wife (a teacher) who also runs a shop selling religious souvenirs. Occasionally he gets lucky and meets inquisitive tourists who are prepared to let him take them on unofficial ‘tours’ around the city, in exchange for a few dollars.
Initially he is cautious talking to us; constantly peering over his shoulder to ensure no-one is listening in on our conversation. The government have ‘invisible’ military informers everywhere, he says. “I must be careful” he adds, grinning. Chatting to foreigners about politics can land you in prison for five years.
But as the sun shifts round and we shuffle our feet subconsciously to stay in the shade of the tamarind's dense feathery foliage, he opens up.
“Everyone in this country is so poor under this government” he says. “There is no business here. A school teacher [a good job here] may earn $30 - $50 per month here, but with the 50% inflation we’ve had each year for the last 15 years [since the government keeps running out of money and printing more] it becomes always harder to make ends meet”
We chat for a while about the economy. Myanmar has around 30% unemployment, no healthcare system and certainly no social security. It is the poorest country in southeast Asia, despite being by far the richest in terms of natural resources - 50 years ago, local experts backed Burma to become the wealthiest economy in the region.
The Chinese aren’t helping. In Mandalay, the half million or so Chinese are ruthlessly exploiting the situation, backed by their own government.
“They only care for business” says Than Kyi “they don’t care for humans at all.” They prefer to employ children in their factories and businesses here, as they can get away with paying them $20 / month rather than the $30 they would need to pay adults.
Than Kyi’s hero, like most Burmese, is ‘The Lady’: Aung San Suu Ki, leader of the opposition NLD party, which won the country’s last elections in 1990 with a landslide victory but were promptly arrested en-masse afterwards and barred from forming a government.
Although the government has promised fresh elections in 2010, Than Kyi is not hopeful of any positive change resulting from them. The only genuine opposition party is the NLD and nearly all of their members are in prison, whilst ‘The Lady’ has recently being sentenced to another 18 months house arrest for harbouring an unregistered foreigner, which very conveniently removes her from the political stage until long after the elections will have taken place.
“The General’s will invent their own opposition party, have their election and nothing will change” he adds with a resigned smile.
An alternative tour of Mandalay
We end up spending a day and a half with Than Kyi, touring the ancient cities that surround Mandalay and stealthily avoiding the government’s exorbitant entrance fees that support the cronies. We learn more about the country in a day and a half than we do in the rest of our two weeks here put together.
At lunchtime, having spent a morning wandering round the ruined stupas, palaces and watchtowers of Amarapura, we sit down for a bit of lunch at a restaurant Than Kyi knows. For once, the food is hot and tasty; certainly not a feast but some of the best we’ve had yet.
Than Kyi was two years into his chemistry degree in 1996, when a succession of student protests led to the government closing every university in Myanmar for five years. He never got to finish his course; money was too pressing for him to wait.
Instead, he got married and used his English skills to get a job in tourism. In 2000 he was arrested and spent four months in prison and was only released when he agreed to resign from the NLD, of which he had been a member since his student days.
Than Kyi is a man of principle; we ask him why he agreed to resign his membership.
“I wanted my family back” he replies simply. “Some of my friends refused; they spent six or seven years in prison. My family is more important.”
It’s astonishing that this softly spoken, meek and bespectacled fellow talking to us could ever have been considered a threat to the government, but it helps to explain why there are currently around 70,000 political prisoners languishing in Burmese prisons at the moment.
After lunch, we wander half mile along a shady, tamarind lined avenue to a local bus stop. Half way along we hear a commotion high up in a tree ahead of us. As we look up, a mouse leaps from a branch 20 feet above us, presumably without a thought to its own safety. It lands on the tarmac, no doubt a little dazed, and scampers off.
Whilst we are trying to figure out what on earth could possibly cause this extraordinary scene, another mouse follows suit. We scan the boughs of the tree intently and finally see the cause of the problem, crashing through the branches towards us.
A slender green speckled viper has attacked a high altitude mouse nest and, in the excitement of finally catching one, lost its grip on the tree. We beat a hasty retreat, although not unduly concerned as said snake seems more concerned about hanging on to its marsupial morsel than looking for any larger prey.
The snake halts its fall, wrapping itself round a branch eight feet off the ground, where it swiftly swallows its mouse, before lazily disappearing into a nook in the tree in search of further delicacies.
At the end of the day we give Than Kyi $10 for his troubles, a paltry sum by our standards, but a substantial pay-day in this country.
We also surreptitiously give him our copy of a recent Economist; perhaps appropriately, it is the issue covering the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and contains numerous articles on oppressed populations overthrowing their repressive regimes.
“Thank you for this knowledge” he beams. “Here, you can sometimes get these [the Economist] in the market, but always two or three years old. This will be most interesting!”
We depart, promising to keep in touch. “Tell people in your country about us” he adds in a serious tone, before grinning and adding “next time we meet, hopefully we have better society here.”