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
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.
Photo: R. W. Wise
Thai-Burma border at Mae Sot, northern
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.
Photo: R. W.
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
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
Today, joint ventures and heavy equipment are digging
deep into the bedrock, itself a combination of quartzite and marble.