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YANGON, Myanmar – The air in the dark, dingy room is thick with the acrid smell of rubber. Aung Nyunt and a half-dozen other workers toil away there day and night, turning discarded tires into flip-flops, buckets and hard-to-find spare parts for used cars.
Their country may be undergoing one of the most remarkable transformations the region has seen in generations, but the trade they learned from their fathers decades ago appears to be as relevant today as ever.
Though military rulers handed over power to a nominally civilian government three years ago, paving the way for political and economic reforms, the vast majority of the country's 60 million people remain desperately poor. For them, nothing is without value.
Old truck tires are transformed into rubber washers and bushings for cars and rice mills. Machine parts, buckets and flip-flops — the most popular footwear in the rural areas — are among the biggest sellers for tire recyclers like Nyunt.
They are especially popular among farmers, the 63-year-old says proudly as he chisels away at the thread of a discarded tire, soon to be a sandal's sole.
"When most flip-flops get stuck in the mud, the straps just snap off," he says. "But these lift out in one piece."
Another worker, Thwe Oo, nods. The 47-year-old has been at this job since he was 15.
"City folk" may think the flip-flops are ugly, Thwe Oo says, but they are cheap — 1,500 kyats ($1.50) — and sturdy. That's what matters.
During Myanmar's half-century of dictatorship and self-imposed isolation, the country went from being one of Southeast Asia's richest to the poorest. Businesses were nationalized and everything from toothpaste to rice rationed. Only a few cars — all belonging to the ruling elite — bounced along the potholed roads, but they went through plenty of tires. And getting spare parts was next to impossible.
Kyi Thein Win's late uncle — known as Bo Taya, or Boss of Tires — saw a need and filled it, turning tire recycling into a family business.
Today their shop is among nearly a dozen lining the streets on the suburbs of the country's biggest city, Yangon.
As the economy opens up, factories are springing up faster than ever, said Win, 39, but it's still hard to get spare parts for machinery.
That's true, too, of the 300,000 cars, most of them secondhand, now on the roads. They need rubber bushings and washers.
Win's shop gets most of its most raw material — primarily huge tires from heavy trucks, tractors and backhoes — from government departments and private companies.
They get orders not just from individuals and local repair shops, but from government factories and large private industries.
"The economy is growing," he says, humming a song as he gingerly cuts a machine washer from a thick black tire with a 7-inch knife. "I don't expect business to slow down for us anytime soon."