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Burma Dreams; Impressions 1999


The image we have of Burma today is that of a pariah state, primitive, brutal, isolated. A country ruled over by a clique of green-uniformed thugs. The human side of Burma or Myanmar as it is now called, shows a rather different face.

Statistics tell us that the average Burmese worker earns a little over fifteen dollars per month but that too distorts the real picture. The average Burmese is not part of the hard-currency economy; he is a peasant tilling the land as his forebears have done for thousands of years. Riding through the countryside, I see houses of plated bamboo, bullock carts and peasants in conical straw hats bent over rice paddies in a tableau that seems to come right out of the last century.

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Photo: R. W. Wise

Thai-Burma border at Mae Sot, northern Thailand.

Burma may be isolated but after my first night in Yangon, I breakfasted on cornflakes with fresh milk from Australia and buttered my toast with sweet butter from New Zealand. The sugar packets bear the logo of the government Department of Agriculture but I use Equal, made is Australia by a division of an American multi-national. In my hotel room I can still get CNN, track the DOW and hear the latest pearls to drop from the lips of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital and Burma's largest city, is a bustling small city with broad clean boulevards, little discernable pollution and streetlights that work. People are going about their business, unaware of the country's outlaw status, with an air of purpose. There are fewer soldiers with automatic weapons in evidence here than say, on an average day in Guatemala City, a country with which we have cordial trade relations.

Recently the ruling Army council, the infamous SLORC was replaced by younger military men and a new entity called OSS (Office of Strategic Studies). The advertised reason for this was a drive against corruption. Several of the former members of SLORC are under virtual house arrest. The chief member a general Khin Nyunt however, is the "adopted son" of none other than General Ne Win the "retired" former dictator.

People may not simply disappear in the middle of the night and the name of the ruling council has been changed but the military is still very much in control. Last month (April) two hundred fifty six dissidents were rounded up, tried and sentenced to terms varying from death to twenty-five years in prison. In one case, a sixty-year-old woman activist was sentenced to twenty-five years for criticizing the junta an interview with the BBC.

The Army’s presence if felt in other quarters as well: The junta has created a unique form of participatory capitalism in the form of private/public business partnerships. Gem mining, for example, is only legally permitted with this type of direct participation by the Army. This type of military capitalism is not unique to Burma, in Thailand, for instance the Army directly owns over a hundred radio stations.

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Photo: R. W. Wise

Buddhist Temple or “Wat” with its gold leafed dome gleaming in the afternoon sun outside the famous Valley Of The Serpents, Mogok, Burma. Burma is the land of a thousand wats.

In the early 1990s Burma did a political one eighty turnaround. In 1962 the Army under General Ne Win launched what was then called "The Burmese path to socialism". The new program under the present regime might be called "the Burmese path to capitalism". In both cases, the same common denominator, The Burmese Army.

Under this system, private investors put up the capital, do the work and receive forty percent of the profits; the Army gets the remaining sixty percent. There are many other joint ventures of this type; the yellow pages are produced by a joint venture with the post office department.

The town of Mogok, where we stayed, is a provincial town one hundred seventy miles west of Mandalay, Burma's second largest city. The valley where the town is situated has been famous since antiquity as the famous "Valley of The Serpents", the legendary source of the finest rubies and sapphires. The town of Mogok today is hardly the stuff of legend. The rubies are still there and are being mined more aggressively than ever before. Traditionally the stone have been found in streambeds and catch basins in the limestone caves that honeycomb the mountainsides surrounding the town.

Today, joint ventures and heavy equipment are digging deep into the bedrock, itself a combination of quartzite and marble.

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