A shoe theft in Yangon

In the spring of 2000 I was rather busy getting my newly established Bo Tree Travel agency underway. And as a business needs business cards, I and my secretary went to a small computer shop on 34th Street. The shop’s front was facing the street and people were busy typing at six or eight desktop computers. We took off our shoes – as is the rule in Myanmar – and placed them in front of the shop next to ten others. It goes without saying that my black low shoes were the kings among the customary plastic flip-flops respectively their luxury versions. And not just because of the size (11.5). We walked into the shop and got to work with the help of an employee. When we were finished after about an hour and a half, we said goodbye and went outside. To my great dismay, my shoes were no longer there. I assumed that someone had put them in the store as a precaution, but I was wrong – they were gone!

Of course, I was upset and asked to see the manager of the store, a young Chinese man who was very concerned. But that didn’t bring my shoes back either. I failed to convince him that he had a certain duty of care for the property of his customers. After all, one of the reasons I had taken them off was to show him my respect. He told me that he was very sorry, but unfortunately there was nothing he could do for me.

“I beg your pardon?” I asked. “That pair of shoes cost me a hundred dollars and I am not willing to accept their loss!” He remained polite but insisted that he was not responsible for my shoes! I considered my next move as I was annoyed by his apparent lack of interest in the disappearance of my shoes.  What could I do to change that? Suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes:

Obviously, this was a case of theft, and the police are responsible for such cases – even in Myanmar. “Police?” asked the shopkeeper in total consternation: “You can’t just call the police!” – “Why not?” I asked. This was definitely a criminal offence. Besides, he was not directly affected: After all, it wasn’t his fault if a thief stole shoes from in front of his store! My secretary too was more than surprised by my suggestion and told me that the man would get into big trouble and possibly have to pay a considerable sum to the police. Not to speak of further consequences! But I remained stubborn: Then he should just reimburse me the money for the stolen shoes. That would be much cheaper for him. The poor guy was now seriously worried and desperately thought about how he could pull his head out of the noose that this crazy foreigner wanted to tie for him.

If you need a pair of second hand shoes - thats's the place

Then he came up with a rather odd suggestion: He told me that he knew a few stores on 30th Street that dealt in used shoes. Possibly the thief had offered his loot there. This seemed so absurd to me that I refused to even think about it. However, when my secretary also urged me to give the man a chance, I agreed. Not without making fun of him. As I wanted to demonstrate my good will I agreed to go along with his suggestion. So they got me a pair of flip flops (much too small for my giant feet) and off we went to nearby 30th Street: the Chinese man, my secretary and myself on my flip-flops. At our destination, we actually found three Indian-owned stores near Anawrahta Street that had used shoes on sale. So my secretary went to the owner of the first store and told him my request: The foreigner needed a pair of black low shoes in his size. The shopkeeper shrugged his shoulders regretfully and we went to the neighbor. He had a pair of black low shoes on offer, but unfortunately not my size. The Chinese man was visibly uncomfortable. So last try! And lo and behold – we were lucky. “This is your lucky day!” said the dealer and pulled a shoe box from the shelf. He opened it and said, “Those just came in!” and showed me – my shoes, freshly shined! The faces of my secretary and the Chinese man lit up. I, on the other hand, struggled not to lose my composure: “Can I try them?” I stammered. “Of course, go ahead! They’re only five thousand kyat,” was the reply. Twenty dollars, after all! “They fit perfectly!” said I. “Will you take them?” asked the Indian. “Definitely!” replied I. “And do you know why they fit so perfectly?” – “No idea!” was the answer! “Because these are my own shoes that somebody stole half an hour ago, you asshole!” I shouted. In the meantime, a fiercely chattering crowd had gathered around us – finally something exciting was happening! Turning to my secretary I said, “Call the police, this guy is a fence!” But nobody listened to me! Before I had even tried on the shoes, the Indian and the Chinese had already agreed on the price: The latter paid 2000 Kyat and then everyone was keen to leave the scene. “But we can’t do that! We can’t let this fence get away with it!” I objected. But before I knew it, I was gently but emphatically pushed away and told in a friendly but determined way to forget about the matter. A perfect example of the Burmese way of doing things.