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John Hughes

Fear of China pushes Burma (Myanmar) out of isolation

Cynics say that military leaders in Burma (Myanmar) are considering reforms urged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after observing the global downfall of dictatorships. The more likely reason is Burma's increasing concern about China's dominance.

By John Hughes / December 7, 2011



When I was a correspondent for the Monitor in Asia back in the ’60’s, three countries in my territory were off limits to Western journalists: China, North Vietnam, and Burma (Myanmar).

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China and North Vietnam resisted my pleas to visit for the length of my six-year assignment. But to my astonishment, and that of my less-fortunate colleagues, one of my overtures to Burma resulted in a one-time visa to visit that country.

It was an eerie experience, a visitation to an undeveloped, closed nation ruled by the military, where time had stood still. My minder was an army colonel in an “information” department that dispensed no information. He determined who I should see and when. My private chats with Buddhist monks and nonofficials had to be discreet. 

On a weekend when I hired a jeep and driver to visit the spectacular temples of Pagan (now called Bagan), which thrived in the 11th to 14th centuries, my hotel room phone was ringing as I entered upon my return. My minder-colonel was on the line. “I just got back from a weekend in Pagan,” I told him cheerily. “Yes, Mr. Hughes, we know,” he replied.

In the once-leading hotel in Rangoon (renamed Yangon), I was the sole guest. (When I went to the totally empty dining room, remnants of British colonial days had not been entirely stamped out. The aged waiter informed me I could not be served without wearing a coat and tie. He produced both, ready for use by the rare visitor.)

The United States in those days still had diplomatic relations with the ruling military regime. The able American ambassador, Henry Byroade, an amateur woodworker, was limited in access and travel and spent considerable time in his carpentry workshop. 

The amazing fact is that though dictatorships like China and North Vietnam in time gave access to visiting journalists – albeit with many restrictions and caveats – Burma’s military has managed for half a century to keep the country under strict rule and in the dark ages. Until now.

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