- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

RANGOON, Burma — Cut off from the outside world, Burma’s most famous citizen spends her days reading, listening to the radio and meditating. The only visitor allowed into her run-down, two-story home is a doctor. Her political party has been decimated by arrests and harassment.

People in this, one of Asia’s most isolated countries, are afraid to whisper the name of Aung San Suu Kyi. Merely to drive near the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s heavily guarded house is to court arrest.

The petite, pro-democracy leader who used to appear before adoring crowds in a yellow sarong with a jasmine flower in her hair hasn’t been seen in public for more than 2 years. At 60, she remains the face of an international campaign to oust Burma’s military regime through economic sanctions and political pressure.

But with her house arrest just extended for another six months and the generals firmly in control, the opposition in this impoverished Buddhist country acknowledge that democracy is years away.

Members of Mrs. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy continue to call for her release and that of thousands of other prisoners. But her arrest has paralyzed the organization and no fresh voices have emerged to challenge the authorities.

Win Naingbut, a vocal critic of the regime, said Mrs. Suu Kyi’s people “have accepted as fact that there is nothing they can do to change the country.”

“They don’t have any answers to the guns,” he said.

The fate of the widowed mother of two reflects the declining state of this country, where skyrocketing fuel prices, a plunging currency and rising debt have further impoverished many families this year.

The sacking last year of Gen. Khin Nyunt as prime minister and the dismantling of his military intelligence unit have fostered an unpredictable political climate. Opponents seem a little more emboldened to speak out, people listen to the Voice of America and visit the Internet sites of exile groups, and the newspapers occasionally air touchy subjects. But political debate is banned, and the military leadership appears increasingly xenophobic, uncompromising and out of touch.

The regime has seemed impervious to outside criticism since it seized power in 1990 to abort Mrs. Suu Kyi’s landslide election victory. But it has turned its back on the international community even more firmly since Gen. Than Shwe, a career military man in his 70s, ousted the pragmatic Gen. Khin Nyunt.

Burma had been in line for a prestige boost next year — the rotating chairmanship of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But in July, after the United States and European Union threatened to boycott ASEAN unless the regime compromised over Mrs. Suu Kyi, Burma announced it would forgo the chairmanship.

If it has won any appreciation abroad, it is for having reduced the land cultivated for opium by 80 percent over the past nine years. But Burma is still a major source of amphetamines and the world’s No. 2 producer of opium, after Afghanistan. Some border regions are largely controlled by ethnic armies that have ended long-standing rebellions against the government but kept their guns and narcotics turf.

The cash-strapped government, meanwhile, has embarked on a massive building spree, constructing hundreds of dams, bridges and roads. In November it abruptly announced it was moving the capital from Rangoon to a remote outpost 250 miles away in Pyinmana.

The reasons are not clear. Diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they had heard reports the junta was afraid of a U.S. invasion, and that the timing of the move was chosen by astrology. They said they were given a fax number for further inquiries about the new capital, but it didn’t work.

“The Burmese are retreating from the outside world,” said Josef Silverstein, a longtime U.S. scholar of Burmese affairs. “They are isolating themselves in a bunker mentality.”

Called Myanmar until the junta renamed it Burma, this was once one of Asia’s richest nations, but it was a secretive place on an economic downslope even before the generals took over.

Today on the crowded streets of Rangoon, there is little evidence of dictatorship. Sugar-cane vendors compete for space with hawkers of fake Rolex watches. Monks in red robes seek donations, and fortunetellers do a brisk business, advertising their services with signs featuring a big yellow hand.

The skyline is a mishmash of neglect and promise, with faded apartment buildings alongside flashy billboards advertising designer handbags. The streets are clogged with 1970s Japanese cars and occasional green World-War-II-era buses. The one train line, more popular since gas prices have risen nine-fold, weaves through the city with hundreds of passengers hanging from doors and windows.

Signs of grinding poverty emerge as the train heads into villages of thatched-roof huts, muddy lanes and hollow-eyed children.

In a village 20 miles outside Rangoon, hundreds of children were gobbling bowls of rice porridge distributed free by a store owner. In the next village, people complained about having no jobs and no money for school fees.

“We’re living hand to mouth here,” said a vegetable seller, refusing to give her name for fear of retaliation. “Prices are up, so there is less profit, more struggle.”

According to the United Nations, the dire situation is compounded by some of the highest rates of malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS in Southeast Asia. Top government officials do not seem to recognize how “precarious life is for the average citizen,” said Charles Petrie, the U.N. resident coordinator in Burma.

“I don’t think there is a humanitarian crisis today, but there are a number of humanitarian emergencies,” Mr. Petrie said. “It’s moving to a crisis because people are having a harder and harder time surviving.”

The aging military leaders paint a rosier picture.

Using the state-run daily, New Light of Burma, they present a world where growth will be 12.5 percent in 2005 — not the 4.5 percent estimated by the International Monetary Fund — and rural living standards are improving dramatically.

Democracy is coming, they say, pointing to their constitution-writing convention, which resumed this month. Western critics call it a sham. The dictatorship says the constitutional convention will lead to elections, but refuses to set a timetable.

“External and internal elements are trying to derail the national convention process at a time when it is going smoothly and successfully,” Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, chairman of the national convention convening committee, warned the 1,074 delegates. “Be aware of subversives.”

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