Friday, August 18, 2017

Foreigners need to pipe down about dual-pricing

It's time to stop pretending that an extra K500 "foreigner surcharge" is killing Yangon's expats - or even that it's even unjust.

Are you salty because you had to hand over K500 more than a Myanmar person would to get a cab this morning? Feel free to cry me the goddamn Nile, but try and at least spare a thought for the tens of thousands of Yangon women whose financial circumstances compelled them to catch one of the clapped-out mobile grope dens passing for public buses in this city. Did you leave your UN pass at home and wind up paying double the local cover charge at Shwedagon? Don’t let me stop you from drafting that chest-beating Facebook post: I’m sure the millions of Buddhists in this country who will never in their lifetimes have the means to even cast their eyes upon Myanmar’s most famous cultural artefact stand with you in solidarity.

I don’t presume to know your financial circumstances, fellow foreigner. I know the guys running adolescent market strategy for Philip Morris are pulling in a fatter brown envelope at the end of each month than the shiny-pants-wearing spivs that somehow blagged their way into advertising gigs without finishing high school. But I also know that, chances are, your assessment of your own prosperity is gauged in comparison to the other foreigners living here or your friends back home, rather than the five-year-old kid popping a squat between two cars outside your office because the orange dumpster she sleeps behind isn’t hooked up to the city plumbing.

On its own, making a show of complaining about expense here is a supremely crass act. Maybe you’ve had a lean few months and the pile of banknotes in your sock drawer has shrunk to a perilously low level; maybe it’s going to be a long time before you get enough coin together to go and see the family and friends you left behind. That sucks for you, but at one point in the past you still had the ability to fly across the ocean and set yourself up here, an act of radical freedom that most people in this country will never have the opportunity to exercise. You will, on average, live 15 years longer than most of the people you encounter here every day. If it all gets a little too difficult, your mum can probably wire you money for a return fare.

But complaining about dual-pricing – and it still just absolutely blows my mind that people actually do this – is beyond the pale of common decency. Implicit in these complaints is the assumption that somehow a tiered pricing system violates some sacred rule of fairness, at the same time eliding a global system of entrenched privilege that allows foreigners to live like aristocrats in someone else’s country. Yeah, you’re earning half as much as you would doing equivalent work back home, assuming there’s a job for you back home. You’re also paying half as much income tax, even in the often-unlikely event your employer has actually registered you with the Internal Revenue Department, and you’re paying a fraction of the cost for food, beer and almost all necessities of day-to-day life.

In the informal economy, the things you’re getting milked for are way too small to sweat. Paying an extra K1000 to take a cab uptown is nothing. Most likely, the guy driving the cab lives in Thaketa or Hlaing Tharyar: After the commute, daily rental from the car owner, and hours idling in traffic, he’s lucky to take home more than a garment worker on an overtime swing. The woman selling curry at the street-side market stall was up at four in the morning to trishaw halfway across town to the wholesalers – maybe she even had to go to that gruesome chicken market in Mingalar Taung Nyunt (the smell of which will haunt anyone who’s passed it by until the day they die). Give them your damn money.

For housing, sure, you have to pay a premium – albeit nowhere near as bad as during the height of the boom in late 2014. As a result, you benefit from a system where most landlords give preference to foreign tenants and have collectively let them colonise the best real estate in town, which is why you can’t throw a stick in Yawmingyi without hitting a mediocre Japanese restaurant or a cake shop. You also live in a country that doesn’t trust its citizens to stay out of their own homes overnight – consider it insurance for the midnight doorknocks from the General Administration Department goons that you’ll likely never have to deal with.

The laws of supply and demand will make their debut in Myanmar’s tourism industry one day in the not-too-distant future. For now, even though the same half a dozen crap airlines are running near-empty flights across the country each day, ticket prices aren’t going to come down. It’s still going to cost way more to stay in some pre-fab concrete bungalow built on a dengue-ridden swamp that was stolen from villagers than your average palatial resort in Phuket. But that’s the product of monopolies that were deliberately created to benefit regime hangers-on, and continues to exist because officials are in denial about the industry being completely moribund. Paying more than a local person would for travel and hotels is not sustaining this state of affairs; it’s barely a drop in the bucket.

All said and done, you still have the luxury to vote with your wallet. For just about everyone else here, their wallets are empty. If you can’t maintain the perspective needed to appreciate the wealth of material privilege that you enjoy relative to your neighbours – and believe me, I know it’s hard – at least have the decency to keep your mouth shut.

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