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Burmese Daze by Madeleine Albright

A    T r i p    To    R a n g o  o n

B U R M E S E     D A Z E

By Madeleine K. Albright

December 4, 1995

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 

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 occasion, 1958, 1962 and l988, 
the last time by rescuing Burma from a fate worse than 
Bosnia's by imposing peace upon anarchic, Communist-inspired 

Ignoring for the moment this distortion of history. I 
informed the general that the purpose of my visit 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 

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 to 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 eye.  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 Burmese 

For years, controversy has surrounded programs conducted 
within Burma by United Nations agencies, including UNICEF 
and the UN 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 
student political event over SLORC objections; and to her 
party's decision to re-appoint 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 handicrafts.   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 business 
people 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 

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 

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 treasures 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.