Getting By: Protecting Burma’s Identities

Business,Technology January 16, 2013 5:15 pm

This is an installment of our Getting By column, profiles of street vendors and other informal economy occupations around the world. 

Daily Income: Estimated between 4000 and 6000 Myanmar Kyat (USD 4.60-USD 7)

Hours Worked: 12. Starting on the 8 AM southbound Mandalay-Yangon line, then returning on the next northbound train back towards Mandalay: 2 hours each way, usually three round trips “down and up” per day.

Name: Moe Hlaing

City: Varies

Neighborhood: Varies

Occupation Title: Document protector

Moe Hlaing strides gracefully into the busy, wildly bucking train car. He walks smoothly despite the bulky box hung around his neck. Unlike other train-based sellers, he does not stand in the middle of the car to make a passionate pitch or demonstrate his product. A group of soldiers beckons him over to their booth, and one of them stands up and motions for him to sit down in his seat. The soldier hands over his ID card and goes to lay on the floor behind, while Moe quickly gets to work.

He lifts the metal lid on the carry-box and lights a pair of candles melted into place beneath it using a cigarette lighter. He replaces the metal lid, hovering just above the heat of the candles. He plucks out a pair of plastic sheets from the storage tube in the carry-box. Sandwiching the ID card between them, he places them down on the now-hot metal plate and begins vigorously smoothing out the small wrinkles in the plastic using a pink cloth rag. After 30 seconds, he pulls the plastic-wrapped card away from the heat, grabs a pair of scissors from their holster, and sets about deftly trimming the excess plastic coating, adding the professional touch of rounding the edges instead of leaving sharp corners. The entire operation takes around two minutes, and after witnessing it, two others sitting nearby immediately fish out documents they also want protected.

Moe’s entire enterprise is contained within the box around his neck. The candles heat the metal lid to a temperature just hot enough to melt the plastic sheets. There’s a built-in money drawer, and a small flashlight suspended over the work area by a bent wire so that he can work after sunset. He engineered this apparatus himself, he says, for “not very much money”. Conductors no longer oblige him to buy a ticket – an occasional payment of several hundred Myanmar kyat (less than USD 1) for “tea money” suffices, covering what a stationary enterprise would consider rent.

His service meets a need that, until now, most train riders likely did not know they had: pay 500 kyat (USD 0.65) for a standard 10-page-or-so passport, or 100 kyat (USD 0.13) for a single ID card, and their formerly-flimsy paper documents are protected by a plastic coating.

There could be a few reasons this service works on a train. A stationary vendor would have a static group of customers, and once all their documents have been laminated there would be little need for repeat transactions; his product’s lifespan is such that he would effectively put himself out of business. Additionally, people traveling by train may have the unprotected state of their IDs at the forefront of their mind, having recently had to retrieve them from wallets or bags when purchasing tickets. And, of course, a captive audience rarely hurts.

Surprising, maybe, that the government hadn’t already thought of this. No time like the initial handover to press for the need for protection, with the associated fees for acquiring the document still fresh in the recipient’s mind. Perhaps skeptics need some proof of the true flimsiness of such documents before they recognize the need to protect them. Until then, Moe Hlaing has Burmese lamination needs covered, one careful, candle-lit sealing at a time.

Zach is a Fulbright grant recipient based in Chongqing, China on a year long ethnographic dive into creative practices of vehicular design among resource-constrained users. Visit squareinchanthro.com for glimpses into the everyday amazing.