Featured Image: Fallow Fields Outside the Weaving Village on Bilu Island
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 August 2019
Making Rubber Bands near Mawlamyine, Burma, February 2017
By the old Moulmein pagoda lookin’ lazy at the sea… wrote Rudyard Kipling on his 1889 visit.
Travelfish contends not much has changed from Kipling and apart from the traffic they are partly right. We liked the sleepy backwater atmosphere of Moulmein, renamed Mawlamyine. Travelling out of there by boat, when we left the huge river seemed part of a lost era. George Orwell’s family connections in Burma and one of his postings during his years in the Burma Police were in Moulmein.
Made famous in his essay On Shooting an Elephant, which begins:
In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.
My favourite amongst Orwell’s novels, his only real novel to my mind, is Burmese Days a very funny, but chilling anti-colonial story. U Po Kyin, the corrupt magistrate is one of the great villains of literature. Burmese Days is set in Katha much further north above Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River.
Denise and I spent a month in Burma in early 2017 on our way to a wedding in Thailand. We went to Burma to see how much the country had changed since our last visit in early 1996. The suppression of the population in 1996 was terrible. Things had improved for people dramatically, though the country is still under the stranglehold of the military junta. Ko Ni a prominent legal adviser for Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy and strong critic of the military, who was working on constitutional reform, was assassinated outside Yangon Airport terminal by a gunman with links to the military in the two weeks between us flying up north and returning to go to Bago.
We travelled from Bago and its pagodas outside of Yangon to Mawlamyine by bus, not too unpleasant. The end of our journey was signalled by the magnificent bridge across the Salween River (renamed Than Lwin by the junta).
We departed after four full days via a small boat to the capital of Karen State, Hpa-an. A much smaller dusty town than Mawlamyine in spectacular surrounds. We lazily charted a taxi (the bus was difficult) to near Kyaikto, stayed overnight and visited the Golden Rock next morning and then caught a bus back to Yangon. An excellent round trip of one week.
Bilu Island cottage industries
One day in Mawlamyine we took a local boat directly across the river to Bilu Island, known locally as Ogre Island. According to legend the islanders were spectacularly ugly, filed their teeth to points, ate raw meat and were thus regarded as ogres, apocryphal rather than likely. Bilu is a large flat island with more than 60 villages and is famous for its well-preserved Mon culture. It shelters Mawlamyine from the sea.
On arrival on the island, we negotiated a reasonable price for two motorcycle taxis to take us around. Our main guide spoke moderately passable English and was very helpful. He took us mainly around a tourist circuit but also to a couple of more remote locations and villages. It didn’t cost very much and we had a delightful day’s outing.
One of the places we visited was a rubber band manufacturer. All businesses on the island were cottage industries and all not likely to survive for long. In comparison the rubber band enterprise had some ancient but functional machines.
Our society has been talking about jobs being replaced by technology since the 1970s, but in the West were are at the pointy-end of this process. Many jobs and careers will disappear in the next few years with probable difficulties and upheavals. Some already have, including white-collar jobs, for example in legal support, which have disappeared or been outsourced. In Australia government has done nothing for the dairy industry whose demise has been ongoing for years. Because of climate change denial by our Federal Government, one suspects that anyone in the coal or related mining support industries will lose their jobs without anyone in government lifting a finger. However, the biggest shake up will be in white-collar industries, some of whom are well aware of this and some aren’t.
Spare a thought for these cottage industries in a third world country on Bilu whose workers and owners will most likely to be quite shocked by the demise of their work and whose very survival may be under threat.
Anything to do with rubber manufacturing is relatively primitive. South East Asia particularly Malaysia and Thailand were the centre of rubber growing in the world in the late 19th and early twentieth century, even though the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) is native to Brazil. English adventurer Henry Wickham smuggled rubber seeds out of Brazil in 1876 to British colonies in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and tropical Africa.
Thailand is the top rubber producing country in the world followed by Indonesia now and then Malaysia. Large rubber plantations are not possible in Brazil because of lack of resistance to endemic disease, in particular the South American leaf blight of rubber Microcyclus ulei. There is a fascinating story about an American attempt to resolve this problem in World War II relating to lack of foresight and funding cuts after the war, which I’ll relate in another blog.
We visited a couple of rubber plantations on Bilu because it was pleasant in the bush. We were already familiar with the rubber extraction process from experience in Thailand.
At the rubber band enterprise it was amazing to see them create rubber bands in such primitive circumstances. The manufacture of rubber bands in the West is an identically process (see the video below). However, the heating for crude vulcanization of the rubber in Burma is incredibly imprecise. The other steps in the process are also more primitive than in the video. The rubber bands produced are not very good.
Basically, the purified or cleansed raw rubber is rolled into crude bales. These are then mixed with other compounds such as sulphur; and extruded into tubes in a basic extruding machine. Dye is mixed in to give colour. The tubes are stretched onto wooden cylinders that look like cricket stumps and dried in the sun. The rubber cylinders are then put through a cutting machine and cut into rubber bands. The diameter of the tube and the width of the cut, determines the dimensions of the rubber bands. The bands are then heated in water over an open fire as a primitive method of vulcanizing them. They are again dried in the sun and packaged in cellophane envelopes.
Similarly, we visited a cottage industry for making schoolroom slates and styluses for Burmese classrooms. Their only customer is the Burmese Government. The rubber band making and the slates are doomed in the next few years, despite the authoritarianism and incompetence of the Burmese government, rapid change in Burma is inevitable. The hat making and weaving may survive slightly longer because of tourism. But, as we’ve seen in Thailand, India and elsewhere, these cottage industries in their original form are doomed. There are no safety nets for the workers in Burma.
I have been asked in India how am I to survive many times by backward castes and adivasis (the previous ‘untouchables’ and indigenous tribal groups), when they are going to be divested of their homes and livelihoods. Most do survive but not all, and their poverty, sense of displacement and desolation increases. Their stories are heart-rending. They are not helped by government in India or very rarely, though often promised help. (See the article on Oustees in India from dams and other large development projects.)
These people in Burma will lose their livelihoods in the near future, but not their homes or their ancestral place. Family and village structures may help them. They may receive government help. Although the Burmese military are not known for their philanthropy and the new government of Ang San Suu Kyi has limited power. Another concern is climate change. Will a rise in sea level or storm surges impact Bilu Island?
An example of the military junta’s lack of concern for the Burmese people is that after cyclone Nargis in 2008, multitudes of people in the Delta had lost everything including their identity. On this trip we saw refugee camps for these people on the outskirts of Yangon and there must be many elsewhere. They are living in poverty years later, because to purchase new papers necessary for housing, work and travel is very expensive.
Conversely, there is plenty of money flowing in Burma at the moment, unlike in 1996. The villagers are making the road, but I suspect someone else is funding it. Perhaps the local area government or the Mon State Government. Funding is happening in some ethnic areas in Burma.
Nonetheless, the rise of authoritarian governments in Asia and many developing areas is concerning, especially as dire impacts of climate change are not far off.
We are going to experience these traumas of dislocation in the West though perhaps not as painfully. However, I doubt that anyone who has just lost his/her job with little prospect of another will feel sanguine about the prospect.
I’d be interested to hear any news about Bilu Island now or in the future.
Key Words: rubber, rubber band, Moulmein, Mawlamyine, Bilu Island, school slates, hats, weaving, travel, Burma
Travelfish Guide to Mawlamyine. I find Travelfish to be the best guide to SE Asia rather than Lonely Planet, particularly for more out of the way places.
U Ko Ni assassination
Reuters gives a good background to the U Ko Ni assassination.
Text of Shooting an Elephant
Wikipedia on Mon Culture
How rubber bands are made
This excellent video shows how primitive the manufacture of rubber bands is in the west and rounds out the process of the cottage industry in Burma.
How it’s made rubber bands (5.04 min)
History & manufacture
The How Products are made: Rubber Band is also a good article
Wikipedia also has important things to say on rubber bands but is less engaging than the other two.
Rubber in general
An archived article from the Rubber Manufacturers Association on FAQs on rubber in general is also enlightening. The Wayback Machine is a terrific resource for discontinued web links.
Wikipedia has the following information on Cyclone Nargis
posted in Canberra
So interesting to see all these traditional industries in full swing – at that time very little affected by tourism and as yet not affected by competition from foreign products. They were mainly making items for sale to local markets – really only going over the river for the local outlets so self sufficient in a way. Not reliant like us on foreign manufacturing for all our everyday needs so maybe in a strange way better off but you do wonder for how long this would hold up.
It is sad to see things disappear, but they lead hard lives now and maybe in the long run, hopefully, their lives will improve. Despite the government not changing, I feel much more confident in peoples’ lives in general in Burma than I did in 1996. However, the plight of those whose lives were destroyed by cyclone Nargis is heart-rending. And, as you know, very few Burmese give any thought to the plight of the Rohingya.
Insightful post. We lived in Burma for several years in the 1980s. Cottage industries flourished then. Sad to realise they will fall away.
Cottage industries are important but often they ned to fall away before they can be resurrected. One always hopes that peoples’ lives will improve In Burma. The country has had such a sad history since the British took the Kingdom of Mandalay in 1885. A lesson that a chain of bad decisions over time can destroy a country and a people.
Very informative & interesting blog as usual Tony.
As you are aware zillions of rubber bands are used here in Thailand especially by take away food vendors who sell their products in plastic bags.
Our village is currently undergoing a building boom ,mostly fueled by Chinese investors and I would estimate that at least 70% of the work force is of Burmese origin.They are reputed to be better workers than Thais and the ones that we employ for odd jobs certainly are.
Naturally they send the money to Burma for upkeep of their families but there will come a time when the building bubble here bursts and they will be forced to go back home.
We have found them to be the most likable people who while they are working here live in squalid conditions to maximise their savings.
I’m sorry I only just approved your comment. Can’t understand why it wasn’t automatic, as you commented before. Interesting and informative as usual.
All the best