For the Political Tourist, A Guide to Burma
RANGOON, BURMA — Not even the travel agents in Rangoon have high hopes for the military regime's attempt to promote 1996 as ''Visit Myanmar Year.''
The generals who run the country would never agree, but it would take a really clever marketing campaign (''Visit Myanmar - And Meet Big Brother'' or ''Come to Burma - We'll Put You Under Our Thumb'') to draw the 500,000 tourists they are looking for next year. In 1994 about 89,000 visitors came here.
''The government is only advertising inside the country,'' sighs the director of one of Burma's biggest private travel companies, who asked that his name not be used. ''Our company is preparing for 1997, not 1996.'' Besides the poor promotions abroad, skeptics note the lack of good hotels at some of Burma's most splendid attractions, such as the temple ruins at Pagan, and the country's nearly decrepit road and telephone networks.
But visiting Burma offers the enterprising traveler a chance to experience something that is increasingly rare now that communism has collapsed: a fully functioning military dictatorship.
Those who do come in 1996 will very likely have the opportunity to absorb the sights and sounds of a country waiting to rid itself of military rule. In addition to visiting Burma's gilded pagodas, you should be able to see opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in action, witness prison laborers ''volunteering'' to upgrade tourist sites, and tour a museum that enshrines the accomplishments of the regime while omitting the military's violent excesses.
The generals who took power in September 1988 call themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC. In a more graceful linguistic fiat, the regime replaced the anglicized names ''Burma'' and ''Rangoon'' with the more Burmese ''Myanmar'' and ''Yangon.''
They refused to recognize the results of elections held in May 1990 in which voters overwhelmingly favored a party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta released Ms. Suu Kyi from six years of house arrest in July, but has refused to enter into the dialogue she has requested. Suu Kyi last week withdrew her party from SLORC's constitutional convention, saying the process was undemocratic. This week, state-run newspapers implicitly called her a traitor and said people attempting to destabilize the country would be ''annihilated.''
The nature of Burma's government tinges the country's charm with a creepy malevolence. In Rangoon there are several military compounds near the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, the capital's largest and the center of Burmese Buddhism. Pounds and pounds of gold and jewels adorn the Pagoda and its surrounding shrines, but the area is freely accessible through a number of streets and byways. The main military compound, where there are presumably fewer riches, is circled by barbed-wire topped walls punctuated with machine-gun portals.
In front of the walls of the fort that dominates the upcountry city of Mandalay is a red billboard that reads in English and Burmese: ''The Tatmadaw (military) shall never betray the national cause.'' It answers a question that no one in the country dare ask aloud.
Since her release from house arrest, Suu Kyi has given informal speeches from the gate of her Rangoon home. As of October she was speaking at around 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays to gatherings of several hundred Burmese and a handful of journalists and tourists.
She speaks in Burmese, of course, but it's not every weekend that one can see a Nobel Peace Prize winner in the flesh. In recent talks she has emphasized the need for her followers to maintain unity, discipline, and patience. The crowds' delighted reaction comes through in any language.
If you happen by at the appointed hour, and some Rangoon tour guides will accompany visitors, it's important to keep in mind that these occasions are illegal. In 1988 SLORC issued a decree banning public meetings of five or more people. The Burmese who do attend the speeches are taking a risk, and some are reluctant to talk. Burmese who have been overheard discussing their country's politics with foreigners say they have been questioned later by the country's military intelligence service.
Another stop on the political tourist's Rangoon itinerary should be the new Defense Services Museum, which honors Burma's military and particularly the regime of the past seven years. This vast institution chronicles every facet of the military: the industries it operates, the government ministries it now controls, and its various kinds of gear. Every sort of munitions the military has ever used is on display, from .22 caliber pistol rounds to a 750-pound fire bomb. There are airplanes, heavy artillery pieces, radio sets, uniforms, even jars of strawberry jam used on hospital ships.
There are countless images of the generals in action. Tasks both mundane and noble are chronicled with equal reverence. One photograph is captioned ''Heads of State seen together with trainees of the women's parachutists course.'' A mural is titled, ''The State Law and Order Restoration Council's endeavor for internal peace and national consolidation.''
One bit of Burmese military history that goes unmentioned in the museum is the repression of popular protest. In 1962, 1974, and 1988, troops shot and bayoneted thousands of civilians who were clamoring for more democracy and less military-backed authoritarianism.
Burma's state-run newspapers and television endlessly trumpet the regime's efforts to upgrade the country's infrastructure as a means of developing the economy and facilitating tourism. In Mandalay, for instance, the government has undertaken many improvements to the hill that overlooks the city.
Where tourists before had to climb some 1,700 steps to see the view and the Buddhist temple at the top, they can now ride most of the way thanks to a switchback road carved into the hill. Construction of an escalator and other facilities is under way.
But diplomats and human rights groups say the government has often coerced villagers and prisoners to work on these projects, particularly on roads in outlying areas. Burmese officials have denied the charges, saying people volunteer to work in the national interest.
On one recent visit to Mandalay Hill, a group of men in grimy white clothes sat in tight formation as a soldier in fatigues gave instructions. They marched in lines to a construction site. A woman working in a snack bar nearby said the men were prison laborers brought by the Army.
From the top of the hill visitors can see another of the regime's infrastructure projects. Slightly north and west of the hill a semicircular compound is nearing completion. It is encircled by a wall, and additional walls inside the compound separate long, narrow buildings from each other. It is a new prison.