AS a young man, U Kyaw Tin used to spend Saturday nights
squiring ladies on dance floors at the numerous ballrooms that
dotted this once-sophisticated capital. During the late 1950s and
into the early 1960s, this was the most colorful city in Southeast
Asia, outshining even Singapore, and revelers boogied to the latest
tunes into the wee hours.
But that was before Gen. Ne Win nipped the country's brief bloom
of democratic rule with his 1962 military coup, just 14 years after
independence from the British in 1948.
Soon afterward, in a fit of rage at seeing his favorite daughter
swooning with a diplomat on a hotel dance floor - or so the story
goes - the general banned dancing.
Twenty-six years of austerity followed, the result of Ne Win's
"Burmese Way to Socialism," a socialist experiment that required
the explusion of just about all foreigners - Europeans, Chinese,
and Indian businessmen - and things foreign. It mostly masked an
increasingly brutal military rule.
After taking over from Ne Win, who stepped down in 1988
following a democratic uprising, a new military government said it
would renounce socialism and eventually restore democratic rule.
Five years into this "new order" under the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC), U Kyaw Tin, a former banker who now
makes ends meet by banging boards into bookcases, says there is
little in Burma (also called Myanmar) to rejoice over.
"Sure, they have loosened up in the last couple of years, but
you have to know these are basically still the same hoods, and they
will keep most things for themselves," he says, a cravat wrapped
rakishly around a neck that still tracks ladies passing by his
His is a common refrain, but not the only one heard here
Businessmen are generally more upbeat about SLORC's
liberalization - not just well-connected businessmen, but also
small-scale entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of the new space
the government created for them when it legalized the country's
huge black market.
Farmers, too, are more prosperous. They now have to sell only
about 10 percent of their output to the state for less-than-market
Undoing the mechanisms of socialism is less daunting in Burma
than in the former Soviet Union or China, because collectivization
was never imposed on a large scale. Three-quarters of the country's
output is still in private hands - most of that in the agricultural
sector but also in trade, transportation, and small-scale industry.
Responding to new economic incentive, the farm sector has begun
producing substantial surpluses and, in the view of some
agricultural experts, the country is on its way to becoming a major
food exporter as it was in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The government has ended its monopoly in a number of businesses
(including gems, wood, and banking), and encouraged the formation
of private firms, including joint ventures with the state, to take
up the new space. Trade within the country has been freed and
commerce with neighboring countries legalized.
The result is that the country - or at least the major cities
where foreigners (and now foreign reporters) are allowed to visit -
has markets filled with cheap consumer goods from China, Thailand,
and India, quenching a demand never adequately satisfied by the
decrepit state sector. There is also an abundance of electronic
gadgetry, and automobile ownership is increasing 30 percent a year.
Unlike in neighboring Thailand, however, traffic jams are still a
malady of the future.
But all this just lends a patina of prosperity to a place that
remains seriously rundown.
"They have been living from money under the mattress for the
last 20 to 30 years," observes a longtime Western resident. Several
years after the door was thrown open again for foreign investors,
"productive investment is awfully absent," he adds. …