MANDALAY, Burma | As the sun breaks over the horizon on Mandalay Bay, a little boy with bulging ribs pulls on a pair of too-large shorts and grabs a plastic bowl.
The child, who is 9 but looks younger, scampers with other boys and girls across the beach, scraping up puddles of molasses spilled onto the sand, salty wooden ramps and ship holds as cargo is loaded and unloaded at the busy Mandalay Bay Tourist Jetty.
The children will refill their bowls all day, racing back and forth between the heavy drums of sloshing molasses and their rickety homes to fill larger metal containers. When the sun is about to set and the day’s molasses has been painstakingly collected from drippings, droppings and splashes, the little boy in the billowing red shorts finally will return home, possibly to supper.
His mother will lift the larger can onto her head, and walk to a collection center where it will be processed into brown sugar to make candy. The family’s take for a day’s labor: between 1,000 and 2,000 kyat - about $1 to $2.
“It breaks my heart to see them doing this,” said a Burmese physicist walking past the jetty who spoke on condition that he not be named. “I’m sure their parents don’t want to have to ask them to do it.”
Burma - or Myanmar, as it is now known - is achingly poor.
Although rich in natural gas, oil and sapphires, the Southeast Asian nation is among the least-developed countries on the continent. The annual U.N. Human Development Index rated Burma at 132 out of 177 - behind Laos and Cambodia but ahead of East Timor.
Most of the country’s vast resources are controlled by the government, a repressive military regime that is isolated from the West and even its own people. But visitors, and there are a few, don’t need statistics to tell them what kind of country Burma has become. So many people are living a hand-to-mouth existence with barely adequate food, clothing or shelter. Most of the little education, health care and sanitation available to the ordinary Burmese people is supplied or supplemented by the few relief agencies permitted to work by the military government.
“Aid alone will not bring sustainable human development, never mind peace and democracy,” said Robert Templer, the International Crisis Group’s Asia program director. “Yet, due to the limited links between Myanmar and the outside world, aid has unusual importance as an arena of interaction among the government, society and the international community.”
One-third of Burma’s 51 million people live on less than $2 a day, most of them in the rural areas. The situation has only gotten worse since May 2, when Cyclone Nargis slammed into the Irrawaddy Delta, killing up to 140,000 and displacing or fracturing hundreds of thousands of families.
Just as painful, the storm flooded much of the country’s most arable land, destroying desperately needed rice, cereal and other food crops.
The government - a conclave of generals that recently moved the country’s capital from Yangon to inaccessible Nay Pi Taw in the country’s jungle-thick interior - has spent about 5 percent of its annual budget on health care and 15 percent on education, according to the most recent World Bank statistics available.
In a land this poor, the privileges of childhood are few: Tiny hands pull weeds in the tobacco fields. Slender arms carry firewood for cooking. Bony backs sway atop donkey carts laden with trash pickings.
One-third of the children under age 5 are underweight or stunted. Ten percent of them will never learn to read. One in five Burmese children born last year will not survive to 40 years of age.
Children as young as 5 become novices in the hundreds of monasteries and nunneries in this deeply Buddhist country, a life of prayer and discipline but also protection. Within these walls are free education, food and shelter from the dangers of a society eroded by chronic poverty.
Without education or skills, “increasing numbers of children work in the informal economy or in the streets, where they are exposed to petty crime, risk of arrest, abuse and exploitation,” warned a recent UNICEF country report.
Another U.N. evaluation notes that children well below the age of 18 are forced into armed gangs or recruited into militias and even Burma’s national army. This is in violation of the country’s own national legislation that prohibits the recruitment of children and international norms that reject their forcible conscription. Forced labor continues to feed the need for workers in mining, construction and timber industries.
By comparison, the children who work the Mandalay Bay Tourist Jetty are relatively well off. They race barefoot over sand and splinters and dodge men straining under the 350-pound drums of molasses to collect the spillage in old metal paint cans. But they are surrounded by friends and tolerated by the stevedores who unload the daily cargo.
Families perch in their makeshift homes along the shore all the way down to the horizon - a community at the water’s edge.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of sugar cane in the Burmese economy. It grows on the fertile plains in the north around Takaung and is transported by rickety wooden ships down the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, where it will be processed into brown sugar and rum.
Five to 10 boats arrive at the Mandalay jetty each day, along with ships carrying charcoal, peanuts and rice. It is impossible to know how many families support themselves by scraping molasses off the boat and truck decks into paint cans or plastic bowls, wading through a fetid surf that is filled with cooking refuse, human waste and washing.
While other 9-year-olds in Mandalay and Yangon dress in green-and-white uniforms and go to school, the keen-eyed boy in the baggy red shorts is engaged in the lowest labor, unskilled and unpaid.
His family may never live in a better home than the jerry-rigged platform with tarpaulin “walls” that offer no protection against monsoons or even animals.
“I was in school,” said another molasses-spattered boy who decided to work on the beach instead. “I left because you can’t make money when you’re in school.”
• Betsy Pisik wrote from the United Nations.