I visited Hlaing Tharyar for the first time with The Angus McDonald Trust in August. It was an eye-opening experience. For hundreds of thousands of people living in Yangon, the realities of the industrial zone are something they face every day: poverty, rife disease, crime, flooding, critical shortages of infrastructure and education, and multiple-hour commutes to jobs in central Yangon, if they can get one.
If, like me, you live in the reasonably developed downtown Yangon, it is sometimes possible to forget the disastrous broader picture in Myanmar. According to the World Bank, only 52.4% of the country’s population have access to electricity, while the paltry minimum wage of 3600 kyat/day ($3) is routinely ignored, and the average monthly income is only $60. Many Burmese people earn 1500-2000 kyat per day – less than the cost of a cup of coffee. Hlaing Tharyar is a stark reminder of the poverty most Burmese people face.
We were visiting the area to photograph some of the local organisations that The Angus McDonald Trust supports. Our first meeting, with one of the Trust-sponsored HIV-positive children, was heartbreaking. Kai acquired HIV through an infected blood transfusion related to the Caesarean operation performed at her birth, and has lived with HIV for her entire life. Besides the physical and mental toll of the illness, Kai also faces intense social stigma were her condition to become publicly known. Disability is often seen as a sign of bad luck in Myanmar, and can be met with great hostility. Seeing a young girl facing a very tough path through life with self-confidence and charm was very humbling, and it was evident that the support she and her family were being given was vital to them.
Later that day we visited TB patients, also being treated at projects funded by the Trust. Living in 20,000 kyat ($17)/month rooms shared between four people means that when one person catches TB, they all inevitably do. The situations these families are in could easily be called desperate, but still they were gracious and welcoming. The food and medical aid being given to them by the Trust is absolutely invaluable while they are unable to work; in Myanmar, there is no state cover if you cannot work for prolonged periods. Typically, a TB patient will require at least 6 months to recover.
The work The Angus McDonald Trust is supporting in Hlaing Tharyar and Yangon in general is incredibly important. Aid is part of a broader picture that will hopefully - eventually - see more people in Hlaing Tharyar and the slums of Yangon lifted out of poverty, or at least provided with the basic food, education, medical care and infrastructure to live decent lives. For the immediate future, if the Trust can help more people like Kai make it to school and get access to antiretroviral drugs, then that is a wonderful start.
Seb Higginson is a photographer and writer based in Yangon, operating as Storgaard Photoraphy. We're incredibly grateful to him for the fantastic photographs he took.