After decades of isolation, Burma prepares to step into the unknown

In Foreign Parts: A new dawn comes up on the long and deceptive road past Mandalay
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The Independent Online

As pariah nations go, Burma rather disappoints. My first acquaintance with North Korea, its fellow outcast, had excited an almost reassuring terror.

As pariah nations go, Burma rather disappoints. My first acquaintance with North Korea, its fellow outcast, had excited an almost reassuring terror.

Pyongyang delivers George Orwell's 1984 nightmare of authoritarian madness, a grey and regimented society watched by an all-knowing, all-seeing Big Brother. Rangoon also boasts massive monuments to an all-powerful being, but Buddha's shrines are much nicer than those to Kim Il Sung. From the barefoot monks gathering alms to the fading grandeur of colonial mansions, the Burmese capital lulls visitors with the languid charms of South-east Asia.

Given the brutal reputation of its ruling junta, there is a disconcerting lack of guns and uniforms in the streets. Burmese, clad almost to a man in traditional longyi sarongs, are keen to engage foreign travellers and quick to list the achievements from Britain's many years in charge - roads, railways and schools. But what of today's regime?

"Government spies are everywhere," whisper my newfound friends, quickly steering the conversation to safer ground such as the British football that dominates Saturday night screens. "Did you see our 'Oscars'?" asks a taxi driver, his tongue loosened by Mandalay rum. The Burmese film world had just gathered for its annual back-slap. "Every winner thanked the military." He spits in disgust. "But they don't thank from their hearts."

The lies perfected by Burma's acting profession are repeated countrywide. Most families harbour bitter grievances, but the choice is clear - bare your heart and go to jail, or learn to live with the junta. Than, a tour guide in Rangoon, was reading philosophy when the government shut all universities in 1996 to teach the students a lesson. Like his classmates, Than had voted in 1990 for the democratic coalition of Aung San Suu Kyi, and watched in despair as the regime ignored her landslide victory. "It has been an illusion since then," he says. "Now we can't trust anything the government says." The universities eventually reopened, transplanted to distant suburbs to dampen thoughts of protest, and Than got his degree.

Like many Burmese in the service sector, Than resents Suu Kyi's high-minded call on foreigners to boycott her nation until the election results are respected. "We need evolution not revolution," he says. "The more people who come, the better. We need foreign investment and foreign technology. We want to swim in the ocean again."

After decades of selfimposed isolation, the government says it is ready to take the plunge. "I hope the international community will not force us into a corner," said the Foreign Minister, U Win, in December. "We can stay in the corner, but we don't want to." Burma's Asian neighbours are prepared to embrace their awkward cousin, while the West demands improvements to its atrocious human rights record.

Hopes have been raised by the generals who run Burma holding secret talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, the embattled torchbearer for democracy, confined to her house or city limits since 1990. A European delegation met her this week, after the visit in January of a UN envoy. Like Tibet's Dalai Lama, a fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, she remains a potent symbol of an oppressed people, yet "The Lady" is hardly the regime's only concern.

Bernard Pe-Win, a British businessman born in Burma, says: "The only way to change the situation in this country is by engaging it." His Forum club in Rangoon is a talking-shop for the city's small expatriate community. "The military government is not as good as we would want them to be, but they are a far cry from how they have been painted." He says the West has little leverage to bring down the military government, because resource-rich Burma can feed itself, and most other essentials slip across the 1,362-mile border with China.

Some observers believe the international focus on Ms Suu Kyi serves the government's aims, by denying support and negotiating space to Burma's restless minority groups, victims of the worst human rights abuses. A British oil executive in Rangoon says: "This place could be like the Balkans." Burma's borderlands are home to rebel insurgents, drug traffickers and a confusion of ethnic and religious agendas.

"I take trouble to hire Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and animists, and they work well together. But left to themselves, they would just hire their own kind. The 'do-gooders' call for democracy, but where will they be when the trouble starts?"