Georgie Anne Geyer

Historic Burma Is Poised to Reclaim Its Glory

WASHINGTON -- Lest you think there are no great and amazing things happening in the world, think again. Consider the beleaguered country of Burma, down on the Bay of Bengal in South Asia, and your faith in mankind will be instantly restored.

For it was there, in that magical country of knowing Buddhist statues and valleys filled with pagodas, of British colonial history -- and of the famous Burma Road that carried supplies for the Allies to China in World War II -- that Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her democrats were elected to the parliament last weekend. Not only has Suu Kyi announced the extraordinary "win," but the Burmese military has also announced it, and thus secured it.

With these events, unforeseen until the last few months in a country dominated for two decades by one of the most stubborn and cruel militaries in the world, another country in Asia may well be on the road to representative government.

What this will mean to historic Burma, now Myanmar, could be truly revolutionary. The United States and the European Union are already beginning to lift the economic sanctions that have stymied the country's once-rich economy. Foreign investment will now be allowed by Washington, not a small gesture in a country of more than 50 million people blessed with plentiful timber, minerals, jade, emeralds and rubies. And above all, the terror would stop!

Until recently, the Burmese military was considered one of the worst governances in the world. At any one time, more than 60,000 Burmese were in some sort of forced labor; rape was used as a weapon against the terrified women of Burma's hundreds of ethnic groups; and AIDS was rampant across the country. While the officers enjoyed gala parties and listened to the astrologers (an old Burmese custom), thinking themselves the "saviors" of the people, the suffering of Burma was largely closed to outside eyes.

The Burmese couldn't get out, and the world outside couldn't get in. Now, amazingly, eyes are open, and so are doors. Stories flowing out of the country, as visas become available, tell of formerly empty hotels full of Westerners and investors. There is even a preservationist group forming in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, to restore the magnificent British colonial and historic Burmese architecture of the city.

When I stepped into Rangoon about eight years ago, with its towering Shwedagon Pagoda and its clever British buildings, I thought I was back in 1946: The Japanese had been defeated, the Yanks and the Brits were at the Strand Hotel drinking Singapore Slings, and Burma would soon be the Golden Land it once was.

If this now happens -- and why should it not? -- Burma will again become one of the most sought-after places on Earth.

A pessimist might answer that question with: "Because the military is still there, waiting and watching. One wrong move by the beautiful and long-suffering Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's hero general of World War II and who has been under house arrest for 20 years for being too popular, and those guys in uniform will be back in control of everything."

To the contrary, this time the drama looks very different. The military knows it faces an awakened people, one that will not suffer eternally in a world where every ant is stirring. China is a big sponge to its small neighbors, and is rapidly taking over Burma north of Mandalay. Burmese know now that Asians outside are becoming rich and powerful, and analysts say finally that even the old military leaders did not want to be seen leaving such a miserable place as their heritage.

But the really untold story of the open road to Burma today is the military president who is quietly and unobtrusively overseeing this transformation. Only no one knows it.

Were I a political science or history student today, I would choose U Thein Sein, formerly a right-hand man of the dictatorship there, as the subject of my dissertation.

Thein Sein is 66 and, according to The New York Times, "slight, bookish and considered softer -- or at least less ruthless -- than the other members of the junta that took power after a popular uprising in 1988." He is free of corruption, and Aung San Suu Kyi herself was persuaded by him to take part in politics once again. He is "different," but no one knows exactly why. (Even The New York Times could not see the man personally.)

His unfinished story, especially in regard to relations with the West, reminds me of one about China's great reformer, Deng Xiaoping, who traveled to France and was humiliated by the wealth there, then came home to transform China. Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk, on the other hand, sent students to France to study, and they returned strange French Marxists who became the savage Khmer Rouge.

Oh, how I wish I were a graduate student again!

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