Burma comes down from its isolationist mountaintop

Burma is entering a different, if not a new, age. Under the stewardship of newly elected President San Yu, this isolated, economically austere nation is likely to continue the cautious policies of Ne Win. A softening of socialist austerity and a gradual opening to foreign aid and investment are likely to continue.

For one sign of the continuing changes, just switch on a TV set the next time you're in Rangoon. Remember, the magic screen made its debut in Burma just a year ago.

What, you may ask, do programs like ''Woody Woodpecker,'' ''The Six-Million-Dollar Man,'' and ''Bonanza'' have in common with the ideological purity advocated by former President Ne Win, father of Burma's socialism?

''Not much,'' one Western Burma-watcher answers. ''How can you argue for idealistic purity when this kind of stuff is being pumped out?''

Television is just one sign of the subtle change this deeply Buddhist nation has been going through for the last few years. Now the country enters a new political era with the election of San Yu Nov. 9 to replace the founder of Burmese socialism, General Ne Win, who resigned the presidency earlier this year.

But San Yu is unlikely to develop real power, according to some Burma experts. His influence is expected to depend largely on the continued support of the man he replaces. The mercurial Ne Win retains the powerful post of chairman of the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party.

If Ne Win turns against San Yu, as he has done in the past, the new President could be ousted. If Ne Win passes from the scene, San Yu is not expected to last.

Radical change is unlikely to come quickly in this nation noted for its beautiful Buddhist monuments, friendly people, and thriving black markets (which help make up for widespread shortages partly produced by socialist controls).

Behind the scenes power is expected to remain with the same high-ranking military leaders who have been influential during Ne Win's presidency. Thus for a time, at least, Ne Win's withdrawal is unlikely to be ''destabilizing.''

In the immediate future, new leaders are unlikely to abandon Ne Win's basic goals.

After General Ne Win seized power in a 1962 military coup, he imposed an austere, inward-looking socialism. One aim was a staunch neutrality to prevent Burma from becoming a battleground in the conflicts between China, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

Preservation of this policy under President San Yu would mean keeping careful limits on foreign companies and experts and avoiding the kind of trendy commercialization, ''degenerate'' pop music, and prostitution that some nationalists in other parts of Southeast Asia sometimes blame on excessive foreign influence.

Still Ne Win himself has piloted recent shifts of direction he apparently hopes are compatible with his basic goal.

One of these is the late October agreement providing for $30 million in US economic aid for Burma.

This is the first major American aid provided Burma since 1966 - aside from a small health-care grant last year and an assistance program that providing helicopters and communications equipment to fight narcotics cultivation. Between 1950 and 1966, when Ne Win closed the door, US economic aid totaled more than $ 120 million.

Other changes have included the planned return of the English language to universities and secondary schools. There are also daily English lessons on TV. The government is reported concerned that without knowledge of English, students will be ineligible for higher education abroad.

Burma has also cautiously begun to accept foreign capital, and to cooperate more closely with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. It has eased rigid economic controls and started a large-scale investment program for agriculture and other export-oriented industries such as forestry and fisheries. As in China , rigid socialism has been tempered by introduction of incentives and bonuses for workers.

Ne Win's successors must work with the momentum resulting from these changes. Rich in natural resources, the country is also a net exporter of both food and petroleum. And, unlike many countries in the developing world, it does not have a problem of overpopulation.

But Burma's new leaders will have to deal with the aspirations of several groups who are not fully satisfied at present.

Some military officers have wondered why their obsolete aircraft and weapons are not replaced. This is especially important because Burma has been fighting both communist guerrillas with ties to China and ethnic insurgents, such as the Shan, who want to set up independent states.

Some officials working in fields like agriculture, education, and medicine have seen lack of money hamstring programs in which they work. Some call for more private investment or foreign aid to finance their programs.

''Look at the amount of money Indonesia earns from foreign oil concessions,'' one Burmese public health official remarked with apparent envy to this correspondent.

There has also been some discontent with the country's isolation and a feeling that Ne Win's policies have produced cultural deprivation and shortages of consumer goods. This is one reason why educated young people often say they feel stifled at home and declare they want to leave the country.

For now it seems clear Ne Win's influence will help contain these pressures. But the long-term question remains: how long can Burma resist the waves of modernization and foreign influence that have swept across much of Asia?

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