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Burmese Daze

A Trip to Rangoon

An extraordinary human and political drama is being played out in Burma. At center stage is the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a hydra-headed military junta that has dominated the country since repressing a democratic uprising six years ago. Sharing the spotlight is the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Prize-winning leader of the pro-democracy forces, daughter of the founder of modern Burma, Aung San. Observing intently, but almost silently, are Burma's educators, professionals and ordinary citizens, scarred by the past and wary about promises of a better future.

The unresolved question is whether the SLORC will release the stranglehold it has imposed on Burmese political life and allow real freedom. In September, I became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Burma since the junta took power. I went to remind the SLORC that a fundamental change in its relationship with the United States will occur only when there is a fundamental change in its relationship with the Burmese people. I also went to express American solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Shortly after my arrival in Rangoon on September 8, in a huge room adorned with tulips, teapots and elephant tusks, I sat down with Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt. He is the chief of SLORC intelligence and the government's interlocutor of choice with Western officials. The general began our discussion with a verbal jog through his country's unsettled past. He argued that outsiders (like myself) cannot appreciate the three factors that set Burma apart from its democratic neighbors: its Buddhist culture; its ethnic diversity; and the special role the military has played over the forty-seven years since the country gained its independence. He claimed that the military had saved the country from chaos on three occasions, in 1958, 1962 and 1988, the last time by rescuing Burma from a fate worse than Bosnia's by imposing peace upon anarchic, Communist-inspired mobs.

Ignoring for the moment this distortion of history, I informed the general that the purpose of my visit was to talk about the future, not the past. Whatever the perceived justification for its earlier actions, the SLORC now faces an historic choice between the status quo and a democratic transition. The general insisted that the SLORC's approach is the best way to guarantee stability and that the Burmese people support its efforts to rebuild the economy and ensure law and order. "Even at midnight," he said, "you can walk around town without danger; that is why the Burmese people have such happy faces." I replied that during a lifetime of studying repressive regimes I had found the smiling quotient in many of them to have been quite high. Authoritarian leaders often delude themselves that they are loved, but the smiles they see are usually prompted not by affection, but fear.

The next morning, I met Aung San Suu Kyi for breakfast at her lakeside home. This is the place to which she had returned from England in 1988 to care for her dying mother; where she had soon thereafter written her first political speeches; and where--until her release this past July--she had spent almost six years under house arrest. In our discussion, Aung San Suu Kyi called for a dialogue between the pro-democracy forces and the SLORC. Asked when that dialogue should start, she referred to an old SLORC slogan: "Precisely, Correctly, Quickly."

I was struck, during our conversation, by her seeming contradictions. Outwardly fragile, she is clearly very strong; outwardly serene, her reserves of patience have worn thin; obviously determined, she avoids confrontation and seeks reconciliation. In the room where we had breakfast, there hangs an immense photograph of Aung San. Other photos show him surrounded by his family, including a 2-year-old girl with deep piercing eyes. Aung San was assassinated in 1947 at the age of 32, but today it is Aung San Suu Kyi, and not the SLORC, who represents Burmese national identity and pride. In the last thirty years, only she and the movement she leads have received a mandate from Burma's people.

For years, controversy has surrounded programs conducted within Burma by United Nations agencies, including UNICEF and the U.N. Development Program. Their efforts raise a classic policy dilemma: how to help people living under despotism without helping the despots themselves. In Burma, most U.N. agencies walked the line by funneling their assistance directly to people in need. I visited UNICEF projects that clearly meet this criterion: a school, a health center and a potable water project. Nevertheless, local U.N. officials admitted the difficulty of carrying out effective development work in the face of government efforts to turn that work to its own advantage.

What, then, is Burma's future? How will the drama play out? How, for example, will the SLORC respond to Aung San Suu Kyi's recent visit to a dissident monk; to her hosting a student political event over SLORC objections; and to her party's decision to reappoint her general-secretary in apparent contravention of a SLORC decree?

If donor countries deny the SLORC international respectability and development assistance, its leadership is more likely to acquiesce in this gradual enlargement of political space. Unlike kleptocracies elsewhere, the SLORC genuinely views itself as the guardian of Burma's economic future, however contemptuous it remains of political freedom. Over time, it may have to admit the connection between economic growth and political reform.

The United States should expedite this realization. Poverty in Burma is endemic, development spotty, the foreign debt is $5.5 billion. Most farming, road repair and construction is done with equipment many years out of date. Western capital has helped other Southeast Asian economies to expand. And so it is no wonder that SLORC seeks foreign investment and international loans. But the U.S. has stopped its economic assistance program and urged others to do the same.

Next year, the SLORC will launch a massive tourism campaign. It will offer the world breathtaking scenery, visits to fabled Mandalay, beautiful Buddhist temples, ancient palaces, picturesque lakes and unique handcrafts. But the roads and sights they are invited to see will have been refurbished through the sweat and toil of forced labor. Democracies should be ashamed to encourage their businesspeople to be "first in Burma," for this would provide the SLORC with the booty it needs to resist mounting pressure for a political opening. "Constructive engagement" must be, in fact, "constructive." International banks must not bail the SLORC out. And economic sanctions--especially in strategic industries--should neither be discarded nor triggered rashly, but rather kept in reserve.

The world should have faith, like Aung San Suu Kyi, in the strength of the democratic forces of Burma. Despite their poverty, the Burmese are a sophisticated, highly literate people, who have learned from bitter experience that justice, law and political rights are essential to national development. In an ethnically diverse country, a strong sense of national pride has survived. According to the clich?, dictators ride on tigers' backs; either they stay on top or they are eaten. But recent experience belies this. Peaceful transitions to democracy have occurred on five continents. If the SLORC sincerely wants to build a multiparty democracy, it should go ahead. This can be done, in the SLORC's favorite phrase, "systematically"; but it should begin soon and must not take forever. After all, South Africa--with problems at least as intractable--went from apartheid to Nelson Mandela's inauguration in less than five years.

Vaclav Havel, who endorsed Aung San Suu Kyi for the Nobel Peace Prize, has told me many times how important it was for those struggling to bring freedom to Eastern Europe to know that they had friends and supporters around the globe. It is essential now that democratic forces abroad maintain solidarity with those pursuing change in Burma. The SLORC has a choice--one road leads to isolation and ultimately to disaster; the other to respect and participation in the region's economic miracle. Half measures or phony measures (such as the SLORC-orchestrated National Convention) are not enough. The SLORC must choose. If it does, the United States will help and so will others. And Burma may become a model of the successful transition from tyranny to democracy, for its neighbors and for the world.

Madeleine K. Albright is U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

By Madeleine K. Albright