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.
In a plus for American diplomacy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has visited Burma; met with Thein Sein, the new president promising reforms; visited with the legendary opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, now freed after long years of house arrest; announced relaxation of some American economic restrictions; and talked of resumed ambassadorial relations.
Secretary Clinton’s message was that the US may relax sanctions, depending on the speed and sincerity with which Burma moves ahead with promises to release political prisoners, ends the country’s isolation, and improves citizens’ lives.
It would be happy indeed if the regime had seen the error of past ways and was now tiptoeing toward democracy as a matter of principle. Ms. Suu Kyi says she trusts Mr. Thein Sein, “but I cannot say everybody in the government feels as he does.”
A less charitable view might be that the government is cynically observing the downfall of dictatorships around the globe and is moving before Burma’s long despotic reign comes to the same ugly end.
A much more likely and pragmatic reason for this sudden accommodation with the US may be concern about the increasing bombast of neighboring China.
Thus Burma would be joining the ranks of Southeast Asian nations that find China’s new military and economic muscle-flexing in the region threatening. As the former president of one of those countries put it to me recently: “We are being squeezed between China and America – and we prefer America.”
A welcome Obama administration foreign-policy move is the president’s assertion that the US is a Pacific power and will act with the forcefulness required of a superpower’s presence. Burma is but one nation now wary of too close an embrace by an ambitious and aggressive China, and anxious for a balancing relationship with America.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.