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National Geographic Magazine, July (r)

Subject: National Geographic Magazine, July 1995 (Part III of III)

Attn: Burma Newsreaders
Re: National Geographic Magazine, July 1995 (Part III of III)

Early the next morning I head north on the Burma Road, completed in 1938 and
famous in World War II lore as the prime land link to besieged China. It has
one and a half lanes for traffic in both directions.

Even this far into my trip I am naive. Throughout Lashio, when I saw SLORC
soldiers ride with civilian drivers, I thought they were friends. Now, as
troops commandeer a truck so they can escort me, I realize that soldiers
seize vehicles at will.

Next to the civilian driver is Lt. Sann Oo. His holster is torn. In the rear
are five enlisted men in frayed uniforms. They carry automatic weapons and a
rocket launcher.

Ten miles north of Lashio the road becomes a moonscape of craters, mud, and
jagged rocks. Our swerve-and-bounce is slower than the pace of a sauntering
water buffalo. This road was in good condition when SLORC opened border
trade. The official weight limit is 13 tons, but most trucks weigh more than
30 tons and crack the blacktop. Rain does the rest. Over a two-mile stretch
we pass 104 trucks. Traffic will become even heavier once the monsoons end.
Southbound trucks carry manufactured goods from China. Those going north
carry Burmese raw materials. During one two-minute period I count 57 huge
trucks carrying hardwood logs to China. Despite such exports, Burma is still
half-covered with forest, because, as this road demonstrates, it lacks good

Most China-bound trucks carry dried fish, rice, and other food that does not
require refrigeration. I sit with Burmese villagers as the food-bearing
trucks drive past their hungry children. Soldiers make it impossible for us
to talk. Are the villagers accepting, because of feudal traditions? Do they
complain? More than 70 percent of Burma's people live in small villages, so
the answer is important. Rural revolts, caused by political repression or
challenges to traditional values, have occurred throughout Burma's history.

Trucks teeter and tip. One rolls belly-up, cab flattened. Another slides down
a cliff moments after its driver jumps out. An overturned truck blocks the
road, stopping more than a hundred trucks in both directions. Drivers do not
call this the Burma Road. They call it the "Highway Where You Never Ask What
Time You'll Arrive." The 116 miles from Lashio to Mu Se takes one day by car,
two days by truck.

Most villages have truck stops. Scavenged engine parts fill glass cases.
Shelves offer whiskey, toilet paper, candles, and machetes for carving
bypasses when the road is blocked. A well-used comb dangles from a string
tied to a mirror. A television sits in a teak cabinet that locks. Whenever we
stop, soldiers guard both sides of the road, weapons ready. What they are
guarding against never becomes clear. Their watchfulness, however, heightens
my feeling of being in an occupied country.

After 14 hours the lights of Mu Se appear. No weary traveler could be happier
if he were entering Paris. A huge blue "Love and Cherish the Motherland!"
sign welcomes us. Truck repair shops sprawl onto muddy side streets.

I invite Lt. Sann Oo to dinner. He is friendly and concerned about his men.
One of them is 14. Another is 15. "They like the army," Sann Oo explains,
"but they also enlisted because their families are poor." Poverty is pushing
more and more children into the army. They are not exempt from combat
operations against drug producers or ethnic groups.

That night, body still aching from the bouncing, I fall asleep quickly. A
knock awakens me. "Who is it?" I shout.

"Lt. Sann Oo."

What does the army want? I ask myself as I scramble to get dressed. My notes?
I open the door. Lt. Sann Oo wears a longyi and looks much smaller. He hands
me a neatly wrapped package. The gift, a small, battery-operated lantern, is
larger than he realizes. It is a reminder that even under difficult
circumstances, strangers can become friends.

Chinese goods fill Mu Se's markets. Because Burmese prize Western-made items,
some shirts sewn in China carry "Made in America" labels. A circle of women
squat. Each has bags of Burmese and Chinese money. These black-market money
changers work late into the night without fear of robbery. Nearby a group of
young men suck on roasted chicken feet and rooster heads. They cross into
China daily to work. It is a classic pattern. Burmese go to China for the
same reason Turks go to Germany or Mexicans to the U.S.

I visit the Shweli River, which marks the Burma-China border. People and
goods cross without documentation. Land on both sides is flat, which explains
why this is the busiest crossing. But there the similarity ends. The China
side has the city of Ruili, whose smokestacks and tall buildings look like a
little Hong Kong. In comparison, Mu Se is primitive.

For many people in Rangoon, however, Mu Se represents the daring future that
trade makes possible. "Visit the disco in Mu Se," they told me. To them it
shimmers like forbidden fruit--SLORC restricts public dancing, puts the
military chorus instead of music videos on television, and calls Rangoon's
new karaoke bars a "deteriorating cultural situation." But the disco in Mu
Se, I discover, is across the border in China. The admission fee is 50
kyats--about a day's wages for a Burmese laborer.

SLORC may still successfully combat Western influence, but it is fighting a
cultural war it may already have lost. From Rangoon to Mu Se, I see civilians
and soldiers transfixed by television programs arriving via satellite.
Satellite receivers are expensive and require government permission, but more
and more people own hidden, illegal dishes. Young people throughout Burma
hold their fingers in a V and say "Make love not war." They are mimicking
music-video hostesses on a Hong Kong satellite station.

Such culture creep, coupled with faxes and international computer links, may
eventually poison both tyranny and Burma's traditions. But such technologies
have not reached most Burmese. On my way south from Mu Se, I stop at Pagan,
which from the 11th to 13th centuries was Burma's capital. It is home to more
than 2,000 temples and pagodas.

A Buddhist abbot is being cremated. Songs and dances begin shortly after
dawn. Hundreds of children squat in the dust, watching. More and more
families arrive. Vendors sell flavored ice and plastic toys. The abbot's
coffin swings in a hammock as monks perform key scenes from the Buddha's
life. The day becomes hot and uncomfortable, yet the children are enraptured
well into the evening. Given a choice, would they watch videos?

When I return to Rangoon, police and army presence is heavy. Soldiers are at
major intersections. It is July 7, the day before Burma's military blew up
the Rangoon University Student Union during protest demonstrations in 1962.
The capital will remain tense until July 20, the anniversary of Aung San Suu
Kyi's detention in 1989.

By 10 a.m., word on the street is that ten students have been arrested for
tossing prodemocracy leaflets out of a bus. Three are already at Insein
(pronounced "insane"), the country's principal prison.

Insein is a 40-minute drive north of Rangoon. No one knows how many of its
prisoners are political. Many people have disappeared into SLORC's jails
without full documentation. According to the UN Special Rapporteur, jailed
"political leaders" alone total in the hundreds. Crimes include advocating
democracy and talking to Western journalists. The top of the yellow outer
wall has broken glass embedded in concrete. Guards are visible only at the
main gate, which has a low watchtower. The prison looks subtle, almost
innocent, yet 200 feet from where I stand are what government officials call
"cells of darkness" for political prisoners.

The corner of a large, low building is visible. "Inside that building, your
worst enemies are bad sanitary facilities and lack of reading material," says
one of my childhood friends. She served nearly four years for assisting
pro-democracy candidates in 1990. Her experience includes sleep deprivation,
interrogations, beatings, and isolation. Political prisoners cannot talk to
one another and cannot mix with other prisoners. They rarely exercise or
bathe. Mostly, they rot. "But as long as you obey all the rules, some guards
show the kindness that makes Burmese special," she says.

My visit to her Rangoon apartment has surprised her, but she reassures me
that "so many kids we knew have been jailed that the government will never
know we spoke." She prepares tea and forgets to serve it.

"If democracy ever comes," she says, "it must take into account our Buddhism
and our traditional reliance on strong leaders."

I argue that military dictatorships inevitably crumble, because people
everywhere want freedom. "The generals have hijacked your history," I say.
"You will take it back."

She remembers the tea, and stirs it in silence. Even alone in her apartment,
with my promise to omit her name, such talk is scary.

That night a small temple bell arrives at my hotel. There is a note from my
childhood friend. "Hang it by your window," she says. "Let it remind you of
shared beliefs and shared fantasies."

The next day, I meet with Lt. Col. Khin Maung Thein, chief foreign liaison
aide to Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, head of military intelligence and Burma's most
powerful general. We are in a government guesthouse. Wide lawns. Impeccable
garden. Polished teak floors. High ceiling. We sit in easy chairs. Servants
bring butter sandwiches on white bread with crusts cut off. Another officer
takes notes.

For 45 minutes the colonel paints pretty pictures: An idealistic fight
against drug producers. Desire to open the economy. Eventual move to
democracy. He does not understand why so many foreigners fail to recognize
SLORC's virtues.

My tone matches his. I too am genuinely confused. "Why doesn't SLORC allow
the International Red Cross to visit your prisons?" I ask.

The officer taking notes rolls his eyes and shakes his head. "Are you aware
that your junior officer is mocking me because I'm asking about the
International Red Cross?" I ask Lt. Col. Khin Maung Thein. He just smiles.

By the time I leave the government guesthouse, another story is spreading:
Several people unfurled a pro-democracy banner at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda.

I have not yet gone to the Shwe Dagon, because I want it to be the one place
in Burma where my childhood memories--slowly rising steps, meditation beads,
huge bouquets of flowers, and men carving statues of the Buddha--prevail. Now
I decide to go.

Everything is quiet. Changes, however, are obvious. Soldiers guard the steps.
One side of the Shwe Dagon has an escalator. Then I begin to climb, and
everything is exactly as I remember! I am young again.

Around the Shwe Dagon's dome, people meditate and recite the Buddha's
teachings. Incense burns. Bells tinkle. The stone walkway feels soft as I
kneel. Eyes closed and head bowed, I pray for the country that still feels
like home.

Copyright 1995 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.
Transmitted: 95-06-19 17:00:44 EDT

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