Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Childhood Spent Scavenging

The Irrawaddy News

RANGOON —Twelve-year-old Maung Chan Thar has only known poverty despite having a name that means “master of wealth.”

His parents gave him the name in the belief that it would bring good fortune to their eldest son.

With a meager household income, Maung Chan Thar's family of eight has to struggle to put enough food on the table each day, let alone buy clothes or things needed for school by his three younger brothers and two younger sisters.

The piles of rubbish in Rangoon are children’s sources of income. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Four years ago, when Maung Chan Thar was just eight, his parents sent him onto the streets to earn money because they could no longer afford to keep him at school.

Carrying a sack on his back, he has been working in the streets ever since, looking through the piles of rubbish on the streets, roaming the railway tracks, collecting empty water bottles, plastic bags—whatever he can resell.

The piles of rubbish at the markets and railway stations are his sources of income. On a good day, he can make the equivalent of more than US $1, but normally Maung Chan Thar only earns about 70 or 80 cents.

“I am so happy to see my mother smile when I put cash in her hands,” he said.

Maung Chan Thar is the second income earner in his family after his father, who makes about $1.50 a day pedaling a trishaw.

Though he is an important source of income for his family, his parents cannot take care of him.

Like tens of thousands of other street children in big cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay, Maung Chan Thar’s clothes are filthy and in tatters. His hair has not been washed for months, and his nails are long and dirty.

Maung Chan Thar thinks things are alright, however. He knows that in his job what matters is collecting as much recyclable material as possible.

"I hate seeing my younger brothers and sisters crying in hunger, so I work hard," he said, sifting through a pile of garbage near Kyimyindaing Railway Station. “I don’t want them to ever do work like this. I want them to keep going to school.”

When he started on the street, he was often bullied by stronger street children, who would sometimes steal what he made.

"I will never forget when three larger boys beat me up and took all my money,” Maung Chan Thar said. “When I got back home, my father beat me up again for being so weak."

Maung Chan Thar has learned how to avoid such incidents, and he has many friends who will come to his help him if someone picks on him.

His worries are far from over, however. The municipal police and staff from the Yangon [Rangoon] City Development Committee are constantly making arrests.

The risk of arrest is higher when he sleeps at railway stations or bus stops in the downtown area, he said. Since his home is located in Shwepyithar in the outskirts of Rangoon, he often sleeps downtown with his friends if it is too late to go back.

“I’ve never been arrested,” he said. “I’m good at avoiding the police.

“People look down on street children like us, thinking we are thieves,” he said. “When we go around below large buildings picking up plastic bags, residents sometimes threaten us. We have to switch collecting sites quickly when that happens.

“I don’t understand why they look down on us like that,” Maung Chan Thar said, adding that he always followed his mother’s advice.

“My mother always told me never to steal or beg, but to work hard and be honest,” he said.

Though Maung Chan Thar seems destined to keep doing his lowly job, he firmly believes he will be rich one day.

“Every night my mother has this dream in which I am a rich man,” he said, squatting on the rubbish.

“Perhaps I will find something very precious in this rubbish one day,” he said. “Who is to say that I won’t?”

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