HLAING THAR YAR, Myanmar – Sweaty hair matted to his pale, emaciated face, Thant Zin Oo starts his days early, winding through small alleyways outside Myanmar's biggest city Yangon and scavenging through garbage piled up behind shops and factories in search of something — anything — to sell.
Tucked under the 11-year-old's filthy, tattered shirt is a half-empty yellow glue tin.
"It gives me a sense of peace," he says, taking a break so he can draw the strong, noxious fumes into his young lungs. "I forget my hunger for a moment and dream of things that I cannot do in my real life."
Myanmar's long-time military rulers handed over power to a nominally civilian government three years ago, leading to the lifting of Western sanctions and a burst of economic activity. More than 500 foreign businesses have invested $50 billion. But as poor families move from rural areas to the big city in hopes of finding work, many find themselves struggling.
Without education or money to buy food — their families often squatting on land illegally seized by gangs — children are most vulnerable.
Many are left to fend for themselves, easily influenced by the bad habits of other street kids, from prostitution and gambling to drug abuse and gang-style extortion, said Aung Kyaw Myint, local leader of an organization that provides help for homeless kids.
Every morning before sunrise, a growing number of street kids can be seen picking through garbage, climbing on the heaps of trash at city dumps, or sleeping on the sidewalk.
Rain or shine, Oo and his 15-year-old brother Ko Min are among them.
The boys say they earn $2 to $3 a day — around half of which goes to their parents and the other half to a small tin of glue they share between themselves.
Oo no longer imagines he will one day be a doctor. And Ko Min says even his more modest goal, being a soldier, now seems totally unrealistic.
He said, "When I sniff glue, I close my eyes and in my dreams I go to nightclubs and have fun."