Burma’s people have a rich variety of traditional costumes, corresponding to their dozens of ethnic groups, but their plainer costumes are red and green. Red is the colour for the robes of around 400,000 monks, many of whom file through the streets every morning, lining up from the smallest to the tallest, collecting rice doled out by generous households. The monks are also supported by brigades of roadside volunteers who harangue passing travellers through megaphones, rattling buckets to collect funds for their local monasteries.

Green is the colour for around 340,000 soldiers. The more senior of the ‘men in green trousers’ are to be found not just in the army, the tatmadaw, and the higher echelons of government but in myriad murky business ventures. Lower down the green ranks are the ordinary soldiers, many of whom have been forcibly recruited – boys and young men snatched from the streets or from passing buses.

Burma’s kleptocratic regime was established following a coup in 1988. The military government had responded to pro-democracy street demonstrations with brutal repression that was to kill around 10,000 people. At this point, a small group of officers, calling themselves the State Law and Order Council (SLORC), seized control – promptly renaming Burma as Myanmar, and Rangoon as Yangon, changes that pro-democracy groups continue to resist. In 1990 SLORC held elections for an assembly to design a new constitution. They were shocked to find that 80 per cent of the votes went to the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of independence hero Aung San and known locally as ‘the lady’. So they rejected the election result and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she has largely remained ever since.

In 1997, SLORC changed its own name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), but it did not alter its style of government – a sinister mix of ignorance and brutality, combined with a striking indifference not just to international opinion but to the basic needs of its own people.

Photo: Jeremy Horner/Panos Picture

The SPDC’s main pretext for repression is to enforce national unity. But it has had limited success. Much of the country’s tortured history since indepen-dence has reflected struggles between its numerous minority ethnic groups and the national government. After decades of insurgency, many have arranged ceasefires with the military regime, but they have exacted a price since it is they who now administer some of Burma’s wilder border areas.

Decades of warfare and militarization have wrought social and economic havoc. More than a million people have fled their homes either within Burma or to neighbouring countries. The economy has also been brought to its knees by incompetence, mismanagement and corruption as well as by international sanctions, notably by the US, which characterizes Burma as an ‘outpost of tyranny’. Most transnationals have withdrawn, and international aid is very limited. The unloved SPDC seems not to care.

Burma is supposedly on a ‘roadmap’ to democracy but the destination seems ever more remote. The main figure remains the hardline General Than Shwe, who has recently instigated a series of purges – in December 2004 jailing the (relatively) open-minded prime minister Khin Nyunt and many others on charges of corruption. The regime remains generally opaque. The diplomatic and aid community in Rangoon, and Burma-watchers and exile groups in Bangkok, try with limited success to discern what is going on. Most agree that the immediate outlook is grim.

Mary Warren