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Rangoon; U.S. makes a difference in isolated Burma.

Welcome to Burma. Or is it Myanmar?

In Rangoon--or is it Yangon?--what to call places is only the first of many questions that arise when pondering this strange, beautiful and perplexing land:

* Should tourists travel here to help counter the country's isolation? Or will tourist dollars find their way into the wrong pockets?

* How can western countries encourage democratic change in a country where leaders have stifled basic freedoms for decades?

* To what extent should the world engage with the military rulers?

The U.S. government has been grappling with such questions since 1962, when the military took charge. In the ensuing decades, the generals have isolated their nation from the international community, brutally suppressed dissent and profited personally. Even today, newspapers and billboards exhort citizens to "crush all internal and external destructive elements!"

The United States still refers to the country as Burma and the former capital as Rangoon out of support for the country's pro-democracy parties, which rejected the junta's name changes and whose landslide victory in 1990 elections was denied by the military.

Better Days

The U.S.-Burma relationship wasn't always adversarial. Burmese independence figures initially allied with Japan during World War II but later fought alongside U.S. and British troops to expel the Japanese from the country. Upon independence from Britain in 1948, Burma had a democratic, parliamentary government and the strongest economy in Southeast Asia. In the postwar years, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Vice President Richard Nixon and jazz legends Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie paid much-heralded visits to Rangoon.

A half-century later, the affection of ordinary Burmese for things American remains intense. From cab drivers to political dissidents, many Burmese consider the United States to be their most steadfast ally.

In 1988 and in 2007, the Burmese people took to the streets to demand democracy, only to be brutally struck down. The United States has called attention to the regime's abuses, worked for democratic change and demanded the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the world's only incarcerated Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years.

The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon's staff is busy making tangible differences in people's lives, whether acting officially or volunteering after hours.


Chance to 'Vote'

The public affairs section runs an American Center in downtown Rangoon where Burmese citizens gather to learn English from American instructors, read uncensored news and literature and attend cultural events. There is nothing else like it in all of Burma. At the center's November 2008 presidential election night party, 800 Burmese of all ages cast "votes" for senators Obama and McCain, experiencing vicariously a free election--something they have not had in nearly 20 years.


Following Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, Burmese authorities stunned the world by initially refusing all foreign assistance. Embassy volunteers took matters into their own hands, packing pickup trucks full of rations and medicine and visiting affected communities. When, after three weeks, the Burmese government relented on foreign aid, the Defense attache office secured the approval for 185 cargo flights into Burma that delivered 62,000 gallons of water, 210 tons of food, 75,000 mosquito nets, 44,000 hygiene kits and 104,000 blankets. Operation Caring Response was unprecedented; never before had the U.S. military been granted permission to conduct humanitarian operations on Burmese soil. In total, the U.S. government has provided $74 million to assist the storm survivors, with more aid on the way.

Visitors to Burma often remark that the country has the feel of Southeast Asia decades ago. Rangoon, a city of five million people, must be one of the last major cities in Asia--if not the world--in which traffic jams are a rarity and motorbikes are banned. Despite decades of neglect, many buildings from the British colonial period are still in use. Downtown Rangoon's Bogyoke Aung San Market, a hive of activity with more than 1,600 shops, has been a must-see attraction for tourists since 1926.

Buddhist Culture

A stroll anywhere in Burma offers vibrant evidence of Buddhist culture: monks in burnt orange receiving alms or nuns in pink seeking shade beneath parasols. Rangoon's majestic Shwedagon Pagoda, sheathed in gold, adds sparkle to the skyline. Tranquil pagodas and monasteries dot the countryside.

Although the beaches of Thailand and temples of Cambodia's Angkor Wat are temptingly close, embassy employees have found that local alternatives are cheaper and arguably more impressive. Ngapali Beach, on the Bay of Bengal, is one such treasure, offering affordable resorts fronting pristine beaches with few tourists in sight and succulent seafood. Bagan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where 2,200 temples from the 10th to 12th centuries bask at sunset virtually undisturbed by tourists, is a short flight from Rangoon. An early morning hot-air balloon ride over the ruins, with the sunrise reflecting off the mist and temples below, exemplifies the "once in a lifetime" experience.

Closer to home, the American Club, on the shore of Rangoon's Inya Lake, has been the place to go for a swim or game of tennis since 1966. The club has recently added flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, a modern gym and playground equipment, and even Wii bowling tournaments. It is home to one of the most picturesque ballparks outside of Cooperstown, with giant banyan trees towering over the fences and a majestic, golden pagoda rising above right field.

Burma's isolation has been intense, but the modern world is finding its way to Rangoon. Coffeehouses are all the rage, and the city boasts good Italian, French, Thai and Indian restaurants, as well as new supermarkets and shopping malls.


Looking Ahead

In 2005, the military regime, reportedly on advice of astrologers, suddenly moved the capital from Rangoon to a remote plain in central Burma. The United States, which opened a new embassy complex in Rangoon in September 2007, has no plans to move to Nay Pyi Taw, four inconvenient hours away. The embassy has 48 direct hires, 11 family-member appointments and 277 Locally Employed Staff.

A sculpture of a U.S. soldier and a Kachin Ranger from World War II stands outside the embassy as a fitting reminder that, before the generals seized power, the people of Burma strove side by side with Americans to gain and sustain freedom. It is a testimony to shared values that nearly 50 years of military dictatorship have not extinguished that spirit.


The author is the consular section chief at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon.
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Title Annotation:Post of the Month
Author:Furst, Colin
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:9MYAN
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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