Burma Emerges From Hibernation

THE ``hermit'' of Asia has come out of its cave, ever so slightly. Once extremely self-secluded, Burma has within recent months begun to open borders for trade, woo foreign investors, court and correct the world press, allow tourists to stay longer, and take outsiders' advice.

More sensitive to foreign opinion, the regime also appears to be less inclined to shoot protesters. The about-face startles Burma-watchers who like to describe the Burmese as highly xenophobic and as reclusive as a Buddhist monk.

``Burma's ability to turn in on itself is incredible,'' says a Western diplomat. ``It is a historically inward-looking society.''

The nation's doors shut to the world in 1962 when Army leader Ne Win took over. In 1979, for instance, Burma became the only country to withdraw from the Nonaligned Movement.

Then in 1987, Ne Win said his socialist government must change. The change included a disastrous economic decision. High-value currency notes were made un-redeemable overnight. The instant poverty for many Burmese fueled riots in 1988.

Ne Win, still very much in authority today, was forced to put forth three new leaders in succession.

The last leader, Gen. Saw Maung, who took over Sept. 18, promises a multi-party election in 1990.

To help win popular support, the move to free-market policies has been hastened.

After hundreds of protesters were killed by the Army last year, Japan and Western nations halted aid and cooled ties to Rangoon. The decision was difficult because of Burma's strategic location as a large ``buffer'' state between China and India.

Now Burma has started breaking through its isolation. It needs foreign exchange through investment and trade.

But it finds the tables turned. It faces a cold shoulder from the West.

``We have a saying in Burma that we do not want to destroy the existing friendly relationship,'' says Ohn Kyaw, director general of the Foreign Ministry.

``A few countries have made reservations and moves in opposite directions. But we don't feel bad about their activities,'' Ohn Kyaw adds.

Since December, however, Thailand, Japan, and a few other countries have broken ranks - enticed by profits - and increased official contacts. This has angered Western diplomats, who, while not breaking ties with Burma, have refused contacts with Rangoon officials.

``We have tempered this regime's behavior,'' claims a Western ambassador. Part of the West's ire is reserved for Australia, whose ambassador, Christopher Lamb, says regular talks with Burma's Army leaders can bring positive changes.

``They've had 27 years of self-isolation and are unresponsive to ostracism,'' he says.

``They're more responsive to dialogue.'' He claims his talks have helped release a few political prisoners.

The Burmese opposition, worried that the election may not be fair without foreign pressure, is keeping track of each country's policy toward Burma.

Western nations may find it harder to keep cool ties with Burma as more of their companies seek business deals.

``I don't know if Ne Win is open to pressure. But everyone is open to pressure to a certain extent,'' says leading opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi.

``But it will have a lot of economic influence, if nothing else,'' he adds.

One unusual change is that the regime has started to hold weekly press conferences, and often responds to shortwave radio reports about Burma by the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, and others.

``Their statements always say bad things about the military leaders,'' says Ohn Kyaw.

``There are many countries with military leaders. Why Burma? Why would they like to incite the students?'' he asks.

For many Burmese, the broadcasts are a prime source of news about their country. ``It's the first time in 27 years that the regime has been criticized,'' explains a diplomat, ``and it's lost face with its own people.''

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