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Letter from Burma

A "Modern" Country Moving Backwards

November 14, 2003


YANGON, Myanmar -- "See that sign?" asks a tour guide, pointing to some Burmese script at the top of a shiny new bridge spanning the Hlaing River. "It says, 'Build a modern country.'"

He snickers. A decade ago he quit his job as an engineering professor because his salary was less than $10 a month. The sign reminds him of the military regime's favorite slogan, posted on red-and-white billboards throughout the country. Titled "The People's Desire," the sloganeering includes four directives to oppose and crush enemy forces.

"How can we build a modern country when our slogan is oppose, oppose, oppose, crush?" he said.

Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is run by a military junta that for more than a decade has defied international pressure to cede power. With a strong distrust of foreign countries -- many of which have supported rebellions in Myanmar at one time or another -- the junta sees itself as the only institution that can hold the country together.

Distrustful also of civilian governments, it refused to recognize the results of a 1990 election won overwhelmingly by the National League for Democracy. It has kept the party's leader, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for many of the past 15 years.

Washington's strategy has been to isolate and pressure the junta. The Clinton administration banned all new investment by U.S. companies in 1997. After a violent clash May 30 that put Suu Kyi and dozens of her supporters back in detention, the Bush administration imposed more sanctions this summer.

"By denying these rulers the hard currency they use to fund their repression, we are providing strong incentives for democratic change and human rights in Burma," President Bush said in announcing the sanctions earlier this year.

But the sanctions' goal of political reform has been elusive.

Instead, 40,000 garment workers -- mostly young women -- lost their jobs within a month because of the latest sanctions, and 60,000 more might lose their jobs, according to the State Department. Many of those workers turned to the sex trade to make up for their lost income, the State Department said.

Tourism has plummeted, hurting countless craftsmen, taxi drivers, restaurant owners, independent travel agencies and others who depend on tourist dollars for their livelihood. The ban on financial services under sanctions imposed by the Bush administration made the use of credit cards impossible, hitting hotels and jewelry businesses especially hard.

After decades of isolation, many of Myanmar's 42.5 million people want more foreign engagement, not less. Lu Maw, a comedian in Mandalay, said meeting foreigners gives him an opportunity to educate them about his country.

"I want to give information," he said. "If you don't come here, I can't give you information."

Lu Maw -- a Suu Kyi supporter whose brother Par Par Lay was imprisoned for six years for telling a joke at an event held by Suu Kyi's party -- disagrees with the National League for Democracy when it comes to discouraging tourism.

"You stay at a family hotel, eat at a family restaurant. Your money doesn't go to the government," he said.

The league argues that sanctions work and that tourists and foreign investors should stay away to pressure on the regime and send a message.

"Because of the sanctions, the people may suffer a little, but without the sanctions the people won't benefit," said Htein Lin, 77, a former newspaper editor in Yangon and longtime democracy activist. "We have to struggle."

But a State Department report last month acknowledged that the U.S. sanctions have had little effect on Myanmar's rulers.

"The military leaders' personal power and wealth have little connection to the well-being of the country," it said. "The country's economic and military elite derives its greatest earning power from the trade of natural resources with neighboring states and countries in the region."

Gregory Love, a New York native who has lived in Myanmar for eight years working with farmers to cultivate coffee for export, says the U.S. policy has only made the regime dig in its heels. While Myanmar's government has made some positive steps, such as reducing drug production and signing cease-fire agreements with ethnic insurgent groups, Washington continues to apply more pressure.

"If every time they do something right you hit them over the head, they become xenophobic and paranoid and don't want to open up," Love said. "The government should be engaged, like we've done with China. When people have more, they want more."

Western governments are swayed to a large extent by Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced ahng sahn sue chee). The U.S. Embassy in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, has worked closely with her National League for Democracy. In the eyes of many, she is infallible, but David Steinberg, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service who has met with her several times, disagrees with her stance.

"She has been uncompromising, and she's been wrong sometimes," he said. "She has said no tourists, no investment. What she's saying is, 'I'm in favor of having poverty until we change the government.'"

But Steinberg knows how many will react to his statement: "To say that is like criticizing Joan of Arc. There is a rigidity and orthodoxy on all sides in the Burma question."

Much to the dismay of the ruling generals, Suu Kyi is very popular with Myanmar's people. Her father, the late Gen. Aung San, is a national hero whose face appeared on the currency until the junta changed the English name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. Some of the old currency is still in circulation and is given with pride.

Soon after Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar from England in 1988 and decided to enter politics, Ma Thanegi became her personal secretary for a year. But she has since fallen out with Suu Kyi over the league leader's unyielding position of demanding political reforms before all else.

"We shouldn't put economic reforms on hold until we get utopia," said Ma Thanegi, now a writer living in Yangon. "It's not the time for revolution any more. It's time for evolution. But (the league) seems to think compromise is a dirty word."

Ma Thanegi, who was imprisoned for three years from 1989, said she had numerous debates with Suu Kyi in 1995 but found her unwilling to listen. A group of 25 league officials who wrote Suu Kyi a letter questioning her strategy were expelled from the party, Ma Thanegi said. Although ordinary Burmese don't want sanctions, they trust Suu Kyi.

"People do want prosperity first," said Ma Thanegi. "But because she's the general's daughter, they all love her. They think she must have hidden knowledge about this sanctions thing."

Meanwhile, the State Department says a humanitarian crisis is emerging. Myanmar's health system is in shambles, blackouts occur regularly, private banks collapsed earlier this year, and inflation runs at 40 percent, leaving many unable to afford basic commodities.

"People are living hand to mouth," said Lu Maw.

Myanmar's government invests very little in health and education but has spent a considerable amount building roads, bridges, a vast new airport in Mandalay and several golf courses in the capital for the elite. Cautiously, it has allowed some Internet access, and, for an astronomical price, cell phone service is available.

Some living in the country express frustration with exiles who call for the junta's ouster without considering how to prepare the country to move forward.

"They're full of hatred towards the government," said a Burmese woman who works at an international humanitarian organization. "I am too, but we have to do something. We have to build human infrastructure. We have to teach the government."

The issue has become so polarized that engagement is a dirty word, yet Steinberg, who meets with senior Myanmar officials when he visits the country, thinks there are people in the government willing to listen.

"As military regimes go, it's certainly nothing as bad as North Korea," he said. "The system may be wrong. The leadership is completely misguided. But there are people in the system who are worth talking to and who might in the future play a role if we don't isolate them."

Instead of sanctions, he'd like to see a well-defined dialogue.

"I want to see us offering certain staged responses to changes -- you do A, we will do B -- and make them very explicit," said Steinberg. "Say, you give us a date (for an election), and we will nominate an ambassador. Just vague assurances won't work."

The United States has not had an ambassador in Myanmar since 1990. Meanwhile, the junta has plenty of other friends in the neighborhood, none of whom support sanctions. Singapore, Thailand and India are important trading partners. China, its neighbor to the north, has become the regime's main investor and arms supplier.

These countries are devouring Myanmar's abundant natural resources -- natural gas, minerals, rubies, jade, seafood and timber, particularly teak. Myanmar's location is also highly strategic, between the world's two most populous countries, India and China, and near vital shipping lanes.

Why does Washington hold back while China and other governments reap the rewards of their relations with Myanmar? Steinberg thinks the administration is reluctant to fight a Congress that has been intent on sanctions.

"No one's going to use political capital on Burma," he said. "Burma ranks probably above Laos and below Cambodia on U.S. Asian policy."

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