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National Agenda : Myanmar Awakens to Kinder, Gentler Military : Regime loosens martial law and renews contacts with the outside world. But critics wonder if changes are cosmetic.


YANGON, Myanmar — The coils of concertina wire, an ugly reminder of the brutality of military rule, have been quietly removed from the sidewalks surrounding the lakeside villa belonging to Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy campaigner who has been held under house arrest since 1989.

Hundreds of political prisoners have been released. Martial law was lifted from Yangon and two other regions of the country last month, and an 11 p.m.-to-4 a.m. curfew was withdrawn for the first time since 1988.

But the darkened streets of this capital remain eerily deserted as a lifetime of suspicion keeps residents from testing their newfound freedom.

Bamboo scaffolding covers the decaying face of the Strand Hotel, a relic of the British Empire. The hotel is being refurbished in a joint venture with a foreign firm as part of the government's ambitious plans for expanding tourism from the present handful of adversity-loving foreigners to 100,000 visitors a year.

After three decades as one of the world's most isolated, repressive countries, liberalization and reform are the talk of Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation formerly called Burma. But it remains a nation of many contradictions: Western diplomats and many Burmese alike say they can't yet tell whether the moves are cosmetic or represent a genuine shift toward pragmatism by the ruling military government.

Like a tortoise tentatively poking its head out of its shell after a long hibernation, the ruling military junta has begun seeking international contact. In August, Myanmar rejoined the Nonaligned Movement after an absence of decades, hinted that it wants to become part of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations and even began inviting foreign journalists to visit again.

"The proof will be in our actions," said U Aye, a wisecracking, American-educated diplomat who is director general of Myanmar's Foreign Ministry. "We're working toward a multi-party democracy with a free-market economy. There's no going back to a centrally planned economy because the people don't want it."

Evidence of the need for reform abounds in Yangon, a crumbling museum piece of the British Raj formerly called Rangoon. The city's fine old buildings--red brick and plaster Victorian edifices with cupolas, gargoyles and innumerable columns--are now blackened with mildew. The enormous, crackling telephones look like they are on loan from the Smithsonian. The few cars on the streets are mainly matchbox-sized Japanese models made locally to 1950s specifications.

There are few signs of the former grandeur of Burma, which a 1948 Stanford University study called Southeast Asia's richest nation. It was a major oil and mineral producer and the world's largest rice exporter. Every flight from Europe to Asia stopped off in Rangoon, and residents of Bangkok, Jakarta and Singapore lived in envy of Burma's many charms.

British rule was replaced by an ineffective and increasingly chaotic government under the politician U Nu. He was overthrown in 1962 by Gen. Ne Win, an intensely xenophobic and superstitious military commander who cut Burma off from the outside world and wrecked its prosperous economy with a socialist system reminiscent of the brutal regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania.

In 1988, Ne Win officially retired after an explosion of street demonstrations demanding democracy, but the military returned to power in September that year after a chaotic summer in which more than 2,000 demonstrators, most of them students, were killed by soldiers. Thousands more fled to Thailand, where they continue to dwell in refugee camps along the border.

Most of the liberalizations have taken place since April, when Gen. Than Shwe took over as chairman of the ruling junta, which calls itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council, known popularly as SLORC. Than Shwe replaced hard-line Gen. Saw Maung, who was believed to have suffered a nervous breakdown after he started publicly babbling that he was the king of Burma.

Since Than Shwe took power, the government has released more than 500 mostly second-echelon political prisoners from jail. More than 900 remain behind bars and are being set free in small groups as the government is satisfied they no longer represent a threat to national security.

More significantly, SLORC under Than Shwe has announced a timetable for making a transition to civilian rule by 1996, including a constitutional convention in the next three to six months, followed by a referendum on a new constitution and new elections.

Some, like the human rights group Asia Watch, nevertheless are withholding their applause. "While some of the measures are welcome and may show the impact of international pressure, Asia Watch finds no reason to believe that the human rights situation has fundamentally changed," it said in a September report.

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