May 7, 2008 / 5:07 AM / in 10 years

Anger, despair in main Myanmar city as prices soar

YANGON (Reuters) - Anger and despair are growing among the 5 million residents of Myanmar’s main city in the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Nargis as petrol queues stretch for kilometers and food prices soar.

The overall mood, however, is one of resignation rather than revolution in a country that has been under uncompromising military rule for the last 46 years.

For now, any repeat of last September’s anti-regime protests appears a distant prospect -- especially with memories of the army’s bloody crackdown still fresh in people’s minds.

“There won’t be demonstrations,” one taxi driver told Reuters on Wednesday. “People don’t want to be shot.”

Although the former capital avoided the kind of devastation that ravaged the Irrawaddy delta to the southwest, killing at least 22,000 and leaving another 41,000 missing, people are struggling for basic necessities.

Many blame the junta, which has admitted it is struggling to cope but which still appears reluctant to open its doors to a full-scale international relief effort in the hardest-hit areas.

Soldiers were conspicuous by their absence on the streets of Yangon, where power lines lie crumpled under uprooted trees. The city, formally called Rangoon, used to be one of Asia’s most verdant cities. In some areas, all its trees have been flattened.

The junta insists it has enough rice stocks to keep people fed, but the price of small bags of the staple have doubled since the cyclone tore through the delta, the country’s rice bowl.

“People are angry not at the shopkeepers, but at the government,” said Dawood, a Muslim elder standing on the steps of a central Yangon mosque stroking his wispy beard. The mosque has bought a pump powered by kerosene -- there is still no electricity four days after Nargis wreaked its havoc -- to supply hundreds of households with water from an artesian well that sits beneath it.

A queue of women and children, holding buckets and tubs, snakes around the corner, past a street market where vegetables are being sold at three times last week’s prices.

A cabbage costs 1,000 Myanmar kyat, or about $1, instead of the usual 250 kyat.

“It’s because trucks are charging so much to bring goods into Yangon,” one female vegetable seller told Reuters.

Double-lines of buses, trucks and cars queued for hours for compressed natural gas and petrol at filling stations open 24 hours a day. Petrol is rationed to two gallons per vehicle. Prices have more than doubled since Saturday.

“I‘m tired, hungry and thirsty,” said Po Ya Kyang, 29, who had waited for four hours and was still 500 meters (yards) from the filling station.

It was a sudden fuel price hike last August that sparked the protests against the junta and its disastrous handling of the economy. At least 31 people died in the army’s ensuing crackdown.

Myanmar’s 53 million people are used to hardship, but unless some semblance of basic service is restored to Yangon soon, their mood may switch.

“We hope electricity will be back in one or two weeks, but who knows?” Dawood, the elderly Muslim, said. “No one is doing anything about it at the moment.”

Black market money changers loitering on street corners say the price of gold has dropped by a quarter because people are selling their jewelry for cash.

“Everyone wants kyat so they can buy food,” said money changer Ko Thin, who was keen to get his hands on Thai baht to feed demand from rich residents who want to travel to neighboring Thailand.

One of the few booming businesses is in torches, with dozens of hawkers setting up stalls with Chinese-made flashlights selling at $2 a piece. Generators are sold out.

Rumors are swirling of looting in the suburbs but there was little sign of it in the city centre. Some restaurants were low on food.

The Tokyo Donut shop, where children of well-heeled Yangonites used to gather in air-conditioned comfort, has run out of drinks and donuts because of the water shortage.

“You can have hot coffee,” a waitress said.

Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler

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