Saturday, November 22, 2008

Seniors on the Streets

An elderly woman sells sticky rice in the street in Rangoon.
(Photo: Aung Thet Wine/The Irrawaddy)
The Irrawaddy News
November 21, 2008

RANGOON — On busy Maha Bandoola Street in Rangoon, an old lady trembles as she walks slowly along the potholed sidewalk. Old rags hang from her frail body as if from a coat hanger. She holds a worn-out bamboo basket in her bony hand and mutters to herself as she passes by anonymously.

Daw Ohn Myint is 78 and comes from Sin Phone village in Shwe Pauk Kan Township, a suburb of Rangoon. If anyone took the time to listen to her muttering, they would realize she was not talking to herself.

“My sons and daughters, please help me,” she whispers. “Please be kind and help me buy food.”

A few 10 and 20 kyat notes lie untidily in her basket.

"My home was destroyed in the cyclone and I can’t afford to repair it,” she told The Irrawaddy. “I used to sell stuff at the market, but nowadays I am too old.

“I live alone,” she added softly.

In Burmese tradition, when the parents and grandparents are no longer able to work, their children take care of them. If they have no relatives, the community looks after them. Burmese people have always been proud of this generous custom—the Burmese welfare system, so to speak.

However, the tradition of magnanimity is gradually disappearing in Burma. In the age of military rule, economic hardship, rising crime and high unemployment, most people are only concerned for themselves.

And more and more elderly people, like Ohn Myint, have to resort to begging in the streets to make ends meet.

On a repressively hot afternoon at Rangoon's Aung Minglar bus station, an elderly couple sits idly on a bench. They seem malnourished and skinny. On the ground in front of them lies a brown towel. They wait patiently for a passerby to drop a note on it—perhaps enough to buy a piece of fruit.

“Both our sons are dead,” explained 70-year-old Daw Mya Sein. “One died as a soldier, the other in an accident in a factory.”

Mya Sein indicated her husband beside her. He is paralyzed and unable to move or speak, she said. Now she has to beg and take care of him at the same time.

“I notice more and more old people begging,” said a well-known Burmese author who now works for an NGO. “Many are disabled, some are blind. When I ask them, they say economic hardship has driven them into the street. Many of them are alone in the world. Some have sons or daughters, but often they too are so poor they cannot afford to feed their parents.”

The Burmese government’s social welfare office—the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Ministry—estimated that there are currently 4.7 million people in the country above the age of 60.

According to data published by the Department of Labour in 2004, the life expectancy for Burmese men is 61.5 years. For women in Burma, life expectancy is 64.4 years, with rural women averaging 63.8 years and urban women living to 66.

"I see a lot of old people selling vegetables in the markets and collecting garbage for a living,” a journalist in Rangoon said, adding that he believes the military government has failed in its responsibility to provide for senior citizens.

Even government employees complain of being discarded once they retire.

"I worked all my life at state-owned textile factory, a 70-year-old grandfather said. “I retired with a pension in 1992. Nowadays I collect just 768 kyat (US $0.60) a month for my pension.”

He said he now works as a night security guard in Hlaing Thar Yar industrial zone.

A 63-year-old ex-warrant officer in the air force told a similar story. He said most low-ranking public servants cannot retire peacefully after a lifetime’s work. “Most have to find new jobs to make a living,” he said.

A retired army warrant officer, who had served more than 60 years in the defense services, told The Irrawaddy he receives a pension of only 7,000 kyat ($5.55) a month.

“It’s absolutely nothing,” he grumbled.

Although the Burmese authorities have failed to deliver on a policy to protect elderly people, they are quick to pay lip service to the proposals.

Aung Tun Khine, the deputy general director of Burma’s Social Welfare Ministry promised his department would—in cooperation with the UN—take care of elderly people whose homes had been destroyed by the cyclone.

"We will give preference to poor senior citizens who live alone, and to those without regular incomes," he told a weekly journal, adding that there are currently 59 shelters for senior citizens in the country, providing protection for some 2,000 people.

However, a local journalist scoffed at the junta’s efforts. He called on all levels of society in Burma to work together to fill the gap the regime had created.

“In the sunset of their lives, many of our senior people are in hopeless positions. Some end up in the streets,” he said. “Where the government has failed to do anything, we must step in. All people in Burma are obliged to help take care of our senior citizens.”
An old-age couple begs for money in the street.
(Photo: Aung Thet Wine/The Irrawaddy)

Elderly beggars are common sights at Rangoon’s markets.
(Photo: Aung Thet Wine/The Irrawaddy)

The despair and humiliation of begging.
(Photo: Yuzo/The Irrawaddy)

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