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Beggars or swindlers: untold stories of Yangon beggars

A cry of “Hey, don’t tread on me!” emerged from the busy crowd at the Thadingyut festival food stalls.

An old woman, dressed in the brown robes of a yogi, was lying down holding a lit candle with one hand, and grasping a cup with money inside with the other. She was a beggar.

Despite massive improvements in the economy since the political reforms of the early 2010s, beggars are still a noticeable problem on the streets of Myanmar’s major cities.

In 2017 a total of 1006 children were apprehended for begging. For the first half of 2018, the number was 427, according to data from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement.

There are many different types of beggars in Yangon, from those with children outside of fast food restaurants, to those on the overpasses and busy streets with physical ailments. Children can also follow pedestrians around, asking for money.

“It’s difficult to know which ones genuinely need help, and those who don’t. Sometimes, over time, I become less generous to some of the beggars around here,” said Ko Kyaw Zin Win from Kyauktada Township.

“Some have self-inflicted burn wounds on their bodies, and others chose to sit in the rain. That can be a daily activity for them,” he said.

He also said that some beg under the guise of being a religious person, like a yogi, nun or monk. All religions and races like to make donations for celebrations and at cultural events, so some take advantage of other peoples’ generosity.

There are also slightly different examples, where people may actually offer some kind of service, like singing or playing musical instruments with loud speakers. This kind of busking has become more common in the city over the past ten years.

“Many people might feel awkward if a monk or nun comes into a tea shop and asks for money, so they may give to them to make the beggar go away. Other religious people, and even us sometimes find this a bit shameful,” said U Khin San from Lanmadaw Township.

Although some beg in the streets because they genuinely have nothing to eat, others may have other sources of income – say from children selling gifts or postcards at tourist locations.

“Some beg by showing placing their children, usually toddlers, in front of them. The older kids or the mothers sometimes will beg for food or money, using these children,” said Ko Thein Soe, a Yangon resident.

Residents near the Hledan overpass in Kamaryut Township recently informed police of a scam involving street children as beggars. The perpetrators were arrested, and the children dispersed.

“They mostly live at Thingangyun railway station. They entice the children to come with money, and then they send them back home in the evening,” said Daw Hla Htay, resident of Thingangyun.

Some beggars also use public transport as a source of income, asking passengers for money while riding buses and trains.

“These beggars come onto the buses without paying, and when the drivers accept them they start distributing their pamphlets asking for donations. Some drivers have started to kick them off, though,” said U Myint Oo, a retiree living in North Dagon.

These types of beggars usually operate in the six downtown areas, and they also recruit young people from those places, said High Court Attorney U Zaw Myo Win from Tamwe.

“Some beggars have coloured hair, with tattoed hands and legs. Some even walk around with mobile phones. Most of the youths are begging to get money for drugs,” he said.

According to Ko Thein Zaw, a street vendor at the Yangon Central Train Station, a beggar in a group can collect up to K30,000 to K100,000 per day.

Because it’s an easy way to obtain money, they don’t want to work or get a proper job, said U Zaw Myo Win.

People have different views on these child beggars, and though many don’t want to see them suffer they don’t want them to be idle and unproductive either.

“Some children earn their living by selling flowers while cars stop when the traffic light is red, some clean cars, some sell pigeon food, some sell purified drinking water bottles and snacks. Buying things that they sell will be more supportive for them,” said Ko Kyaw Zin Win.

Although the government does not have any policies or response measures to help combat adult begging, it sends homeless children to youth vocational training centers, said Dr Win Myat Aye, minister at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement in 2017.

With the aim of eliminating the homeless and beggars in the city, the government first came up with the plan in 2011.

An order was also issued to arrest and transfer beggars under Section (40) of the Police Act (1945). The section, which is somewhat dated in its language, warns against any person “begging or seeking alms”, or anyone who “exposes or exhibits any sore, wound, bodily ailment or deformity with the object of exciting charity or of obtaining alms”. Offenders these crimes are subject to a fine and possible imprisonment for up to a month.

Despite the longstanding law, and the government’s measures to combat begging, it’s still a perennial issue that hasn’t gone away.

As authorities are lax with enforcement, and in a society which often prides itself on its generosity, Myanmar finds itself in a bind with the issue of beggars. On the one hand people don’t want to be seen as mean spirited, but the altruistic impulse to also has its downsides – in that the somewhat “undeserving” may exploit such ordinary forms of generosity.

Many people know of the scams and schemes, and do limit their donations to the undeserving poor. Some await a more consistent approach to the problem from local authorities, which disincentives the free-loading mentality.

It’s crucial for relevant social communities to cooperate with the government authorities in the effort to reduce the number of beggars, said Ko Zaw Myo Win.

Source: Myanmar Times

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