Being poor in Burma

Burma is a beautiful and fertile land, very rich in natural resources such as productive agricultural land, teak, gems, gold, minerals, oil, natural gas, rich biodiversity and culture. Unfortunately its rulers are very poor in the one resource they most need to turn Burma into a great nation again – wisdom (Proverbs 28;16,  Proverbs 16:16). The Burmese Government hijacks a massive proportion (23.6%) of the nation’s scant wealth for its massive military force of over 500,000 personnel. A meagre 1.3% of GDP will be spent on healthcare. (For comparison: New Zealand spends 3.5% of its budget on military and 18.4% on health;  the US spends 19.3% on military and 19.3% on health. [Note: figures for comparison only, not a detailed breakdown. Data from])

Burma has a population of 50,519,000 (11.5 times the population of NZ) with a land area of 676,552 square kilometers (2.5 times bigger than NZ) which equates to a population density 4.5 times that of New Zealand.

The GDP per capita is Intl.$ 1,100 compared to $28,000 for NZ, meaning that we are basically 25 times better off than the people of Burma. However, this figure masks the vast inequalities that exist within Burma, with by far the majority of wealth being taken by the ruling classes and the ‘average’ Burmese existing on more like US$ 450 per year, whereas we average around US$ 29,000 per year with the lowest income in NZ about 40 times the average income in Burma.

The Burmese currency unit is the kyat, which at today’s official exchange rates is 20 cents NZ and 16 cents US. More realistic data from within Burma is that US$ 1 costs 895 kyat as of 20 February 2011. The daily pay for a manual labourer is in the range of 1500 kyat for men, 1000 kyat for women (working from 6am to 6pm).  In practise this works out that a 2kg bag of rice will cost a Burmese labourer up to a third of a daily wage, by comparison I pay one 24th of a day’s pay for 2kg of rice (and I work 8 hour shifts, not 12).

A household in Burma with access to electricity may only have power available for 3 hours a day, for this it will cost half a labourer’s monthly pay. Consequently most people use wood and coal for fuel, the electricity gets sold to Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh. The monthly wages for factory workers in Burma is about US$ 30-50, whereas across the border in Thailand equivalent workers earn at least US$ 120 per month. (The Irrawaddy)

However, numbers do not paint an adequate picture of what being poor in Burma is actually like, the extract below is quite a common situation for Burmese people:

“But, when I was little the living situation changed and we didn’t stay together. First, my father passed away when I was a young girl.  Then, my family’s income wasn’t very good and it was very difficult to stay together.  Since we were farmers we had to pay very high taxes and we didn’t have enough for food.  So, my mother had to find money to support her children.  She had many jobs and tried to work hard for our family.  She did housework, and sometimes she went outside the house to make money for our family.”
By a Student of the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (Letters From Shan State)

Note: The information used for this post is the best I could access at the time of writing. As better or new information comes to my attention I will post again on this topic.

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Image of woman farming: iStockphoto
Image of tarpaulin house and power pole: Vision Beyond Borders
Image of collecting water at well: Vision Beyond Borders
Cartoon of Than Shwe’s budget by Harn Lay: The Irrawaddy