SMALL children stand in awe of the Japanese TV that floods the tiny shop with colour and noise. The cars scream, the bullets fly, but life outside goes on much as before. Men and women in check sarongs pick their way through gaping muddy potholes. And moss and weeds above their heads tumble from the rotting old colonial facades.
Rangoon, Burma, cut off from the rest of the world for half a generation, is now tentatively coming to terms with what it has missed — endless reruns of The Saint for one thing.
Burma’s ‘teak curtain’ crashed down in 1964 — a desperate move by the government of General Ne Win. Nervous that warring regional tribes would fragment the country into a patchwork of tiny states, he broke all ties with the outside world and led everyone off on the ‘Burmese Road to Socialism’.
Self-reliance was to be the guiding principle — and took its place alongside Buddhism as the country’s second religion. Investors like Unilever had their assets seized and much economic activity came grinding to a halt — though Burma, self-sufficient in food and oil, was already in a good position to go it alone.
But the rebels did not go away. Although the situation nowadays is fairly stable there are still nearly a dozen insurgent groups, like the Kachin Independence Army in the north. Around 30 per cent of the country is in rebel hands.
In the cities a powerful influence is the 100,000 strong Buddhist clergy, whose striking saffron robes brighten the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay. Ne Win was careful to keep on good terms with them.
But he was less successful with his own followers. Corruption and mismanagement so sapped the administration that by 1975 he was again looking for outside help. And the rot hasn’t stopped yet. One of the most vigorous black markets today is held under the portico of the Internal Revenue Service.
Most of the outside aid asked for has been long-term loans — including one billion dollars from Japan. But oil-exploration aside, the Burmese still don’t want direct foreign investment.
The biggest success of the ‘Burmese Road’ seems now to be in food production. Land belongs to the state and each farmer is allocated twenty acres. Today they are reaping the benefits of the green revolution without the social injustice that it has produced in other countries. Tight organisation of agriculture has also enabled them to settle and control some of the rebel areas close to the Thai border.
A Burmese oddity is that it is only the older people, those who remember the British, who speak foreign languages. But English teaching is now being heavily promoted — prompted it is said by the failure of Ne Win’s daughter to pass an entrance examination to a medical college.
President San Yu took over from Ne Win in November 1981 but Burma’s cautious lifting of the curtain looks set to continue.