Yangon, Myanmar

  • Date
  • 16 March 2001

Dinner with Richard and Peter, locals Jim met a couple of days ago. They took us to Fuji Restaurant serving traditional ‘Myanmar cuisine’. Fuji began as a coffeehouse in a place nearby and opened this restaurant recently. It’s near the embassy and ex-patriot area, so it thrives mostly on foreign revenue. The bright, simply-decorated interior is pleasant and prices are far more expensive than typical Myanmar restaurants. An art gallery with a just-opened, watercolor exhibition by a Yangon man, is behind the restaurant.

Richard and Peter import cars from Japan. Forty-something Richard, who picked us up, drove a small, inexpensive Japanese model. Richard’s been married 13 years and became a father 10 months ago. “The child was a miracle, especially since he’s a boy,” he told us. His wife miscarried 10 times prior to the birth of the ‘miracle’ son.

Thirty-something Peter, the younger, unmarried brother, drives a yellow SLK like the body of our car, and is desperate for a wife. The main obstacle for him is finding a Roman Catholic as Myanmar is mostly Buddhist. Plus the wife must be from the correct socioeconomic and education level. Peter is “taken care of” by his mother, who lives with him after returning from New Jersey having immigrated there with her husband. He died after living only one month in the US, but Peter tells that his father had just returned from a trip to Las Vegas, so he “died happy”. “My Father had never seen wide lane roads and bright lights like that before,” Peter said.

Turns out Richard and Peter give kyats (local currency) to the black market, which supplies US dollars to Japanese who put the cars on a boat back to Myanmar. It is illegal to do what they do, but the government appears to turn a blind eye. Neither brother knows who’s behind the black market and Peter pointed out, “We’ll never know. There’s somebody at a lower level who will catch all blame if something goes wrong. The man at the top doesn’t come down.” I think the dollars may come from Thailand, but honestly I didn’t quite follow the entire process.

Richard and Peter also told us how the government gives the people huge subsidies on fuel. Each person is rationed three gallons per day (They can fill 9 gallons in one day for the next three days, but that’s the max allowed or they must pay a much higher fee) at the specified neighborhood, government-owned fuel station. Three gallons cost less than one US dollar. The government is controlling fuel consumption since Myanmar doesn’t produce enough to meet demand, so they import the expensive products from Malaysia and Indonesia. Jim says the country could produce more than enough for the population if Myanmar had the right technology. Total (French multi-national) just entered into a contract to develop gas and oil in the country.

Interesting night, but when we returned to our hotel Jim told me, “I’ve never been nervous about our dinner companions until tonight. In America they’d be considered the Mafia and I hope the restaurant wasn’t bugged.” “But you kept asking about things,” I said. “Yes, I hope the waiters didn’t hear.” I never thought about Richard and Peter as “mafia figures”, but Jim’s been around longer than I have. I simply loved learning about the country through their eyes and how they are making money in a country where the controls allow them to go around the rules.