Coming of age in Burma

The sign posted in the rustic elevator at Burma's best-known hotel, the Strand, reminds guests that all exchange transactions should be handled at the front desk.

It is dated July 8, 1954.

Inside a nearby cabinet labeled lost and found are a number of dust-covered items, one of which is a Zippo lighter with ''Willy's Overland Export'' stamped on it. The company has been defunct nearly 30 years. Outside the hotel, thousands of vintage American automobiles race through the capital's streets in the shadows of old and dilapidated buildings.

The feeling is unmistakable: It's 1948 and the British have just left.

In the countryside, the ox is man's best friend and women paint their faces with pale yellow thanaka (bark makeup), puff on thick cigars, and stir-fry their meals on stoves fueled with hardwood. Families roost in stilt-supported bamboo huts, and if father makes furniture, chances are that grandfather and his father did, too. Here a 17th-century life style continues to thrive.

To the casual observer, Texas-sized Burma seems veiled from the modernization that has affected much of Southeast Asia. Decades of self-imposed exile have left the country shrouded in the mists of time, a place where people have maintained a simple way of life and where Buddhism and spirit worship coexist with an unusual form of socialism.

Yet while on the surface Burma remains somehow unchanged, it is a country which, for nearly a decade, has been cautiously moving to shed its isolation. It also faces a precarious transition of power from Gen. Ne Win, who has ruled here since 1962.

The changes in Burma may help explain partially the Oct. 9 bomb attack in Rangoon, which killed 17 South Korean officials, including several Cabinet members, and three Burmese. Burma has been increasing its ties to both North and South Korea, a sign that the isolation is ending. Although South Korea blames North Korea for the bomb, also under suspicion are the many insurgent movements in the country as well as political opponents who formerly served the Ne Win government.

It was in 1962 that Gen. Ne Win seized control of a struggling Burma that 15 years earlier had achieved independence from Britain. General Ne Win and his military Revolutionary Council began ''The Burmese Way to Socialism,'' a Buddhist-modified form of Marxism. For 12 years General Ne Win ruled by decree, maintained a neutral foreign policy that excluded foreign investment and aid. All businesses and land were nationalized, and tourist visas were restricted to 24 hours.

Burma effectively had dropped out from the world.

By 1974, though, the country's once prosperous economy had plummeted. Rumblngs both from within the government and by hostile ethnic minorities caused General Ne Win to revise his isolationist policies. He abolished the Revolutionary Council and introduced a constitutional but authoritarian government through the Burma Socialist Program Party.

Gradually, General Ne Win opened the door to foreign assistance, especially to agricultural and mineral development - two areas in which Burma is known to have great potential. These moves paid off as Burma's economy revived in the mid-1970s, expanding 5 to 6 percent a year through 1982.

However, today General Ne Win, who retains an iron-grip control over the party, faces some of his biggest challenges. Chief among the general's problems is picking a successor that will ensure a smooth transition of power when he departs.

This dilemma was spotlighted last May when General Ne Win's heir apparent and long-time confidant, Brig. Gen Tin Oo, a former chief of the Military Intelligence Service and third-ranking leader in the party, abruptly resigned his parliamentary posts.

General Oo currently is under house arrest pending criminal and political charges. His demise has had far-reaching ramifications in the party. Earlier this month a General Oo protege, Bo Ni, former minister of home and religious affairs, went on trial. The arrests of General Oo and Mr. Ni have nearly triggered a full-scale purge as dozens of senior officials, most from the military and intelligence services, have ''resigned,'' according to reports and sources here.

A Burmese journalist said General Oo's downfall was due to his ''excessive ambition and misuse of power,'' adding that General Ne Win has always been effective in squashing premature challenges to his authority.

Western observers point to three remaining possible successors: Aye Ko, number two in the party and an ex-lieutenant general in the Army; President San Yu, who rose to power in the 1960s; and Kyaw Htin, deputy prime minister and commander-in-chief of the defense services.

Meanwhile, the government shakeup has caused concern about the military's ability to effectively continue its 35-year fight against various anti-government groups operating in the outer parts of the country, according to Western sources. (Burma is made up of a hodge podge of races: One in three citizens are not Burmans.)

Minorities control fully 50 percent of the land and more than a dozen groups have well-stocked armies. Fortunately for the government, the rebel groups have been unable to join together. Two groups, however, the China-supported Burmese Communist Party (12,000 soldiers) and the Karen National Union (6,000 soldiers) are adept at guerrilla warfare.

The Burmese government also continues to suffer economic setbacks. At one time the world's leading rice exporter, the country's production fell drastically during its isolation period. In the late 1970s, production rose some 65 percent through the introduction of high-yield seeds and new cultivation techniques. However, world demand for rice has dropped 50 percent in the past year, leaving storage bins full and Burma's treasury hurting.

Burma is the world's leading rare teakwood exporter, yet there are long-term problems in this industry also. Increased production has not taken into account the fact that much of the timber is in inaccessible areas, while excessive poaching by the hill tribes and ill-planned cutting methods are certain to reduce future yields.

Leading contributors to Burma's attempted economic uplift have been Japan and West Germany. Both have provided low-interest loans and consultants since the late 1970s. Japan helped bring television to Burma in 1980 and expanded the country's telephone network. Japanese architects and engineers are helping expand Rangoon's port and airport. West Germans are involved in weapons and water pump manufacturing and banknote production. Both countries are assisting with heavy industrial projects such as automobile assembly plants.

American aid returned in 1979 after a 15-year absence. Last year's $13.8 million went for health and agriculture projects.

Despite the economy's rollercoaster performance and the current political turmoil, the average Burmese does not appear concerned. Most of those questioned said Buddhism, the religion to which some 85 percent of Burmese adhere, is the reason. ''We expect to suffer in life; to find peace we turn inward,'' says Ma Hein Da, one of about 100,000 registered Burmese monks.

One sign of Buddhism's far-reaching influence is the fact that every boy before the age of 20 shaves his head and dons a saffron robe to spend time in a monastery. Said Mr. Da: ''It's to put them in a proper frame of mind and to see if they would like to become one of us when they're older.''

Wherever there is a monastery there is usually a pagoda or a temple nearby. It's these often ancient and stunning shrines along with the country's mystical reputation that attracts most tourists.

One of the reasons tourism is not a money-making industry is a maximum seven-day visa which often forces visitors into a helter-skelter journey.

Many visitors come to Burma looking for antiques such as Buddha sculptures, opium weights, Pali (ancient scripture) boards, and puppets - all of which the country is famous for.

Burma is also known for its gem and opium smuggling (85 percent of the opium produced in the notorious ''Golden Triangle'' region comes from Burma). These commodities provide the impetus for the country's booming black market. Strict government control on consumer imports has left store shelves bare to the point where a reported 85 percent of all consumer transactions are made through the illicit market. The suppliers are the gem and opium smugglers who exchange their goods in Thailand for everything from televison sets to washing machines, which are then hauled back across the border via river or jungle pass. The smuggling also is a boon to the minority tribes along the border who tax goods going each way.

Ironically, the black market has allowed some smugglers to become Burma's new and only rich. Another desired occupation these days is to become a seaman. Sailors are allowed to import vehicles (one per sailor) into a country with some of the highest car prices in the world. A new Toyota can run as high as $25,000.

But the black market is not all there is to Burma today. Aside from the pagodas and exotic atmosphere, what makes the country so fascinating are the Burmese, as unassuming, genuine, and friendly a people as can be found in the world.

On a peasant-packed boat chugging down the murky Irrawaddy, the country's main river and transportation lifeline for villages unaccessible by road, Tin Eun, a school principal, talked about the government's decision in 1981 to reintroduce English in the schools: ''We wasted 20 years not teaching English. They (the government) made many mistakes. Now the teachers are going back to school to learn English, but maybe it's too late.''

For farmer Ohn Shwe, work is all he's known. In a makeshift bamboo hut next to his muddy rice field, he reflected on how he's been ''driving the oxen'' since he was 10. Yet he says he's happy because, ''it's better for us now. Before we worked for landowners; we always owed them money. We own the land now. It's ours.''

Burmese families are typically close-knit with different generations often living and working together. If they are not farmers or government employees, they usually operate small shops or work as craftsmen. Nearly all dabble in the black market to supplement their incomes or to meet their material needs. Burma's per capita income is around $200 a year, technically making it one of the world's poorest countries. But the figure is misleading as there is an abundance of agricultural products and its people are self-sufficient. Few Burmese are starving.

While average Burmese seem content with their simplified life style, a number of people are frustrated with their lack of freedom. Many mentioned their inability to leave the country as the most severe restriction. ''I would like to go to New Zealand for two years,'' said Mya, a guesthouse proprietor from a village near ancient Pagan.

One young Burmese contended that life in Burma isn't all that dissimilar from the West. He defended himself with a story about a motorcycle gang leader named Kyaw Hein who married a movie star called Sandar.

''Kyaw Hein started appearing in movies,'' he related, ''and soon became our biggest star. Then he left Sandar. Doesn't that happen in America all the time?'' the young man asked.

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