Myanmar Youth Fish Storm Drains to Bolster Income


They work by night, the urban fishermen of Yangon, a dozen or so boys with rattan pith helmets and homemade stun guns.

At dusk they alight from the "circular train"--a railway that rings the capital and the cheapest public transportation--to rendezvous at the station for the middle-class neighborhood of Kanbe.

From there they set out on foot on their mission: electrocuting as many fish and eels as they can in the storm drains. With luck, each team of two will catch 7 to 14 pounds' worth, which they will sell to vendors.

"You put the charge in the water first, then see the fish come up to the surface. Even those hiding in the holes come up," says 15-year-old Win Myint, who helps his parents during the daytime at their massage business.

"It depends on luck. We are all experienced, so none is better than the other. It is just luck," 14-year-old Maung Kyi says.

They do it every night of the week because their families need the extra income.

The boys, ages 13 to 20, come from North Okkalapa, one of Yangon's working-class suburbs that have failed to share in the surface prosperity that has sprinkled downtown areas with luxury hotels and imported cars.

Myanmar has made some economic progress since the current group of ruling generals opened the country to foreign investment in 1988, but it is still ranked among Asia's least developed countries by the United Nations.

It's hard to know when this peculiar type of fishing began or how widespread it is. The boys who gather at Kanbe station say they began doing it about three years ago, after learning the trade from an older man in their neighborhood.

It's not fun, Win Myint says. It's strictly business.

The boys work in teams. The leader, usually the older and bigger one, carries the fishing gear. This consists of a homemade carryall bag with two motorcycle batteries connected to two wires wound on two 3-foot-long bamboo poles, one carrying the positive electrical charge, the other negative.

The whole kit is assembled at the station. Once ready, the bags are worn as backpacks, the handles serving as shoulder straps. Atop their heads, the team leaders wear helmets with flashlights attached, like miners' hats.

The assistants have no special gear but carry six-gallon plastic jerrycans to hold the night's catch.

Splitting up to cover the widest possible territory, the teams hike through darkened streets, stopping at each uncovered drain. The poles are thrust into the water and the current switched on. If a fish or eel is present, it is electrocuted and floats to the surface, where it is scooped up.

The fish are small, but in hard times even small fish are prized. Whether the catch carries health risks is not their concern, the boys say.

The night's work is done when the batteries run down, which takes about three hours. The batteries are recharged during the day.

Win Myint says his father doesn't like his fishing because it goes against the Buddhist prohibition on taking life.

But Win Myint has eight brothers and sisters, and every day he hands over to his parents his night's earnings--the equivalent of about 50 U.S. cents, which is more than half a day's wages for an unskilled laborer in Yangon.

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