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Tea Leaves

In Myanmar, the ties that bind have a dark side

A strong sense of community can produce both volunteerism and intolerance

Yamin Oo, center, with other members of the RecyGlo team at the Phandeeyar office in Yangon. (Courtesy of Phandeeyar)

The first Yangon neighborhood I lived in was almost bereft of charm when I arrived. It lost its only attractive feature shortly after, when the municipal government cut down the trees lining the street and widened the road to six lanes. Overnight, the hitherto neglected road became a major thoroughfare connecting the downtown blocks with the city's outlying eastern townships.

One night I watched a car veer around the corner and into a man walking along the roadside. In less than a minute several dozen people had amassed around the accident scene. Two tended to the wounded man as 10 or 15 others formed a cordon to marshal traffic. With police nowhere in sight, others linked hands in a blockade to prevent the driver, clearly drunk, from leaving the scene. Soon a local ambulance arrived, staffed by a volunteer group, and its crew members carted the injured man off on a bamboo stretcher to the nearest hospital.

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