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Daw Suu's Letter from Burma No. 7

Mainichi Daily News, Monday, January 8, 1996


"Breakfast Blues"

Letter from Burma (No. 7) by Aung San Suu Kyi

	One of the most popular topics of conversation in Burma today is the
rampant inflation.  When a group of people gather together to discuss the
situation of the country the talk invariably turns into a comparison of the
present prices of goods with the prices that prevailed before 1990.  The
comparisons are made wistfully, indignantly, incredulously, furiously.  It
is a subject that never fails to interest anybody except the tiny handful of
the extremely rich who do not have to worry about the price of anything.
	Those for whom inflation is the worst enemy are the housewives who have to
make a limited income stretch to cover the basic everyday needs of the
family.  A visit to the bazaar becomes an obstacle race where the shopper
has to negotiate carefully between brick walls of impossible prices and
pitfalls of substandard goods.  After an exhausting session of shopping the
housewife goes back home and struggles to produce meals which her family can
enjoy, trying to think up substitutes for the more expensive ingredients
which she has been forced to strike off her shopping list.
	To understand the difficulties of housekeeping, let us look at what it
involves to produce just the first meal of the day.  Breakfast for many
people in Burma is fried rice.  Usually it is a mixture of cooked rice and
other leftovers from the evening before, vegetables, meat or shrimps;
sometimes an egg or two stirred into it; sometimes there might be a
sprinkling of thinly sliced Chinese sausage; sometimes a variety of steamed
beans sold by vendors in the early hours of the morning might be added.  It
is a fairly substantial and tasty meal.
	The breakfast fried rice for many families has now taken on an anemic hue.
There is not likely to e any meat or shrimps left over from supper, eggs or
Chinese sausage would be an extravagance and even steamed beans, once the
humble man's food, are no longer cheap.
	The price of chicken six years ago was 100 kyats a viss (about 1.6
kilograms), now it is 400 kyats.  Mutton that cost 150 kyats is also 400
kyats now.  Pork has gone up from 70 kyats to 280 kyats.  The smallest
shrimps which cost about 40 kyats in the late 1980s now cost over 100 kyats,
which the price of medium-size prawns has gone up from about 100 kyats a
viss to over 200 a viss.  And giant prawns now over 1,000 kyats a viss have
entirely disappeared from the tables of all except the very wealthy.
	At such prices few families are able to cook sufficient meat to satisfy the
whole family for one meal, let alone to have enough left over for the
breakfast fried rice.  Eggs are not a ready substitute either as the price
of an egg has also leapt up, from about 1 kyat each before 1990 to 6 kyats
at present.  And Chinese pork sausages which can be so conveniently sliced
up and thrown in to provide flavor and sustenance have become almost a
luxury item at around 450 kyats a viss.  (Before 1990 the cost was about 250
kyats a viss.)  With the price of meat so high, in the breakfast fried rice
of Burma today vegetables feature large -- but not as large as one might
expect.  The price of vegetables has gone up at an even faster rate than the
price of meat.
	A dish which is much loved by the Burmese not only at breakfast time but at
any time of the day is /mohinga/.  This is a peppery fish broth, which is
eulogistically termed Burmese bouillabaisse, eaten with rice vermicelli.  A
steaming bowl of mohinga adorned with vegetable fritters, slices of fish
cake and hard-boiled eggs and enhanced with the flavor of chopped coriander
leaves, morsels of crispy fried garlic, fish sauce, a squeezing of lime and
chilies is a wonderful way of stoking up for the day ahead.
	The price of an average dish of mohinga which includes vegetable fritters
and a quarter of a duck egg was 3 kyats before 1990.  Now a slightly smaller
portion with a cheap bean fritter and without duck egg costs 15 kyats.
There is less of even the standard flavorings: coriander leaves have gone up
in price from 50 pyas a bunch to 5 kyats.  Extras such as fish cake or eggs
are, it need hardly be said, expensive.  Few people can afford a substantial
breakfast of mohinga.
	These days whether breakfast is fried rice or mohinga, it is not only less
appetizing from lack of good ingredients, it is also less nourishing.  And
this is not merely because the high prices of meat, fish and beans mean less
protein foods.  In both fried rice and mohinga, palm oil is used instead of
peanut oil which has become too expensive.  To make up for the lack of tasty
ingredients, a liberal dose of monosodium glutamate is generally added.
What used to be healthy substantial delicious breakfast has become for many
Burmese not just unsatisfactory but also something of a health hazard.
	Yet those who can afford to have fried rice or mohinga for breakfast,
however unsatisfactory it may be, are the fortunate ones.  There are many
who have to make do with rice gruel -- or even nothing at all.

* * *
(Editor's Note: One U.S. dollar is officially set at 6 kyats, but the actual
exchange rate now is about 120 kyats to the dollar.  The pya is one
hundredth of a kyat.  This is one of a year-long series of letters, the
Japanese version of which appears in the Mainichi Shimbun the same day, or
the previous day in some areas.)