There has been a lot of excitement in the past year over various reforms in Myanmar, the most dramatic changes being the release of political prisoners, democratic elections, more freedom of the press, and opening the country to foreign investment. But one thing that hasn’t changed in the country is the dire employment situation and stagnant economy. Maybe all this “investment” and “development” will equate to better employment opportunities for locals at some point, but, to quote the great song by John Hiatt: “It hasn’t happened yet.”
Because finding a good paying job — hell, any sort of job — is so difficult, many natives of Myanmar are still seeking work in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly in Thailand and Malaysia. In Bangkok, it’s quite common to find people from Myanmar working in jobs in the construction industry, in bars and restaurants, or as maids. I’ve met two waiters just in the past month; one from Mawlamyine and the other from Chin State. When I was in Kuala Lumpur last month one of the young men working at my hotel was from Mandalay. He’s been working there for several years and I always enjoy chatting with him in Burmese when I stay there. Not far from the hotel, near KL’s Central Market, or Pasar Seni, is a street lined with several businesses either managed by people from Myanmar or catering to customers from that country. This “Little Burma” seems to get larger every time I’m in town.
When I’m in KL, I make sure to stop at the Gantawin Restaurant a few times for hearty bowls of monhinga for breakfast, or good meal and a bottle of Myanmar Beer at night. The waitresses always look a little apprehensive when they see a western customer enter the establishment, but once I smooth talk them with a bit of Burmese, the ice is broken. One more bottle, please!