Burma is a police state. Make no mistake. You feel it the minute you arrive at Rangoon’s shabby, desultory airport, thronging with ill-equipped armed soldiers. Downtown, among the banyan trees, rust-robed monks, bicycles, trishaws, and Daihatsu trucks, billboards exhort citizens to crush internal and external foes. On the sidewalks, cheroot-smoking hawkers in longyis (sarongs) and sandals sell cheap combs, razor blades, and belts, or simply snooze in the sweltering heat beside the bundles on their mats. Old cars belch fumes, while between blighted British-built buildings wink shimmering gold-leafed pagodas. Consumer culture has barely penetrated here, and the currency, the kyat, is in a near free fall.
Burma—or Myanmar, as its current leaders controversially call it—is an ancient, picturesque land in eastern Indochina. Once an outpost of the British raj, it has been ruled by military force since 1962. It is a country curiously arrested in time, both charming and tragic. After the reformist National League for Democracy’s overwhelming electoral victory in 1990, the military blocked NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ascension to power; it closed down universities and imprisoned, killed, or banished many party members, intellectuals, and dissidents. Once one of the region’s most prosperous states, Burma now languishes in poverty and isolation, a pariah among nations, with a per capita income of $170 a year.
Ms. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and is the daughter of modern Burma’s founder, Bogyoke Aung San. For six of the years since the annulled election she has been confined to her home in the capital, Rangoon (Yangon, in the rulers’ terminology). Unable to travel around the country or leave it without being barred from returning, she was denied a visit to her dying husband, Oxford professor Michael Aris, in 1999. In September of 2000 she was apprehended at gunpoint by government agents on the outskirts of Rangoon as she and supporters tried to leave the city; now she is once again under house arrest and remains incommunicado. Her case is but one of many: the week before I left for Burma in March, another NLD member, a writer, was sentenced to twenty-three years in prison.
Burma’s military rulers, who consider themselves fervent Buddhists, rule by fear. Newspapers, television, and radio spew endless streams of propaganda, empty uplift, and xenophobia. Informers and spies sow suspicion among the populace. Telephone, fax, and Internet access are tightly controlled by the government, although CNN and NBC leak into the country, and the BBC and the Voice of America are broadcast in Burmese. Outside the country, several generations of exiles work to bring about democratic change.
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