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For the Political Tourist, A Guide to Burma

By Cameron W. Barr. Cameron W. Barr is the Monitor's Tokyo correspondent. / December 8, 1995


Not even the travel agents in Rangoon have high hopes for the military regime's attempt to promote 1996 as ''Visit Myanmar Year.''

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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.