WASHINGTON -- Ten years ago, I was visiting the "old Burma" of unsmiling military rulers and cowed people when I experienced something that typified the mood of the country.
I was staying at the historic Strand Hotel in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), a legacy of British colonial days, which didn't look like much from outside but was utterly beautiful inside. (Costing $450 a night at that time, it should have been beautiful!)
That night, I needed to get in touch with my syndicate about my column, and first I naturally tried email. The Burmese man behind the desk, one of those slim chaps of ambiguity who neither smile nor frown, but bow elegantly with two hands pressed together, said the email was down. Fine, I said I would try to phone -- indeed, there was a phone close by.
At that moment, all conversation and movement in the lobby stopped as one. It was as if a ballet had frozen in mid-movement. I, too, took part in the moment -- I feared to do anything else. I gave a small, but ironic, bow to him and said simply, deliberately, without ornamentation of speech, "I'll phone tomorrow."
Journalists did not file from Burma, by then named Myanmar, under the government's relentless censorship, and I really should have known.
Given this background, I was even more delighted than most Americans to see the unlikely state visit of Myanmar's new president, Thein Sein, to Washington this week. The first Burmese leader to come to the U.S. since 1966, the former general met cordially with President Obama and was feted at a fine dinner. A reformer, Thein Sein is a general, but neither looks like one nor acts like one. He is small, balding, studious-looking and wears glasses.
Somehow, in 2011, he emerged out of the fistful of generals who ruled the country like a horror movie since 1989. These men controlled the vast gem and oil resources of Burma (the shops were full of gorgeous ruby and emerald necklaces) and went by the "names" of No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, etc. It was said they all slept at the military's headquarters, each to keep an eye on the others.
Coming out of his particular nowhere, the new president immediately began reforms. Above all, he released from two decades of house arrest the beautiful Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate who is already a parliamentarian active in politics.
But he also has begun to release all the political prisoners in Burma, to make peace with the ethnic tribes of the North and to open the economy to foreign investment.
Onlookers were surprised when one of the first things he did was block plans to build an enormous dam in northern Burma. They should not have been. The dam was to be backed by China, and by all accounts one of the major reasons for the reforms is the fear of China's formidable capacity for taking over the countries that abut its borders.
Even when I was there, from Mandalay north to the border (roughly about half the country) the major language was Chinese. Another 20 years, and Burma might be gone.
Equally serious is the ongoing bloody conflict in the southwest with the Rohingya Muslim people in the area, which abuts Bangladesh. Some leading Burmese anti-militarist analysts fear that the old hard-liners in the military are attempting to reinstate their power, in particular over its control of Burma's wealth of resources. By encouraging some Buddhists to fight the Rohingyas, these men could be attempting to destroy the hope of change. With at least 180 killed last year and more than 120,000 displaced, this remains a real possibility.
President Obama was quite aware of both Chinese expansionism and the fears of a country like Burma, and he moved quickly to open ties with the new government. President Thein Sein met with various American companies and Asian economic groupings while in Washington to assure them that Burma meant it when it said this was "Myanmar's Spring."
The changes also came at the same time that President Obama has shifted the focus of America's military presence to the Asian Pacific region, a pivot that was considered a counterbalance to China, which has increased its military spending by 175 percent in the last decade.
"As a consequence of these changes in policy inside of Myanmar, the United States has been able to relax sanctions that had been placed on Myanmar, and many countries around the world have followed suit," President Obama said during the White House visit. "But, as President Sein is the first to admit, this is a long journey and there is still much work to be done."
Still under consideration because of the sensitivity of working directly with the Burmese military command, which used to take whole villages and force them into forced labor for the military's industries, are any direct military relations between the two countries.
Educating soldiers and officers under the International Military and Education Training (IMET) program, a joint effort of the State and Defense departments, might prove possible for initial engagements.
When you look at South Asia and see how different countries have managed change, you see them making economic reforms first, before political changes. Not so with Burma.
Historically, the Burmese have been an especially attractive people. They are tiny, with fine features and elegant movements. But by the time I visited, they had been ravaged by the military. Their faces were gaunt from hunger, their eyes dead from lack of hope, their voices silent. So when I read of Burmese reforms and freedoms, I want to bite my lip for fear of crying from joy.
- Politics & Government
- Foreign Policy
- President Obama
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