Burma has been, for many outsiders, a forgotten place, a land where little ever changes. Western guidebooks enthuse about the fact that, alone in East Asia, Burmese still wear traditional dress—longyi sarongs—and women wear thanaka, a chalky paste made from bark and applied to the face as a natural sunscreen. Visitors from neighboring nations see in Burma vestiges of the slower, seemingly more relaxed life common forty years ago in Thailand or Singapore. They often single out the open-air teashops, often without electricity, where customers spend hours sipping warm green tea and eating samosas and mohinga noodles beneath a skyline of gold-encrusted temples and crumbling colonial facades.
If visitors know anything about this country of some 55 million people, it’s that for nearly five decades Burma was ruled by a military regime. The junta outlasted nearly every other army in the region, leaving Burma, until the election held in 2010, among the few remaining military dictatorships in the developing world. And Burma’s generals seemed to conform to every image of thuggish men in green. In 1989 they locked up opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), decisively won Burma’s only free election in decades the next year, and then they ignored the outcome. They oversaw massive infrastructure projects built with forced labor, and adopted an acronym for the government—SLORC (later changed)—that sounded like a James Bond villain. They dominated a state media that, in its unswerving fealty to the regime and its bombastic attacks on critics and outsiders, made the Soviet-era Pravda look as flashy and open-minded as Vanity Fair.
The leader of the junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, was a man with little formal education who rarely traveled outside Burma or met Westerners. He stashed the country’s wealth overseas while spending minimal amounts at home on health and public education. A leaked video of the wedding of his daughter in 2006 showed her draped in diamonds, and she reportedly received more than $50 million worth of gifts from well-wishers. Than Shwe seemed to make decisions with little real analysis. In November 2005, with no warning, he moved Burma’s entire government from Rangoon, the largest city, to a desolate town in the baking central plains, which the regime named Naypyidaw. Some Burmese alleged that Than Shwe had acted on the advice of his favorite fortuneteller. Others claimed that he had moved the government to Naypyidaw—which, besides being the only town in the region with reliable electricity, was to be ringed by bunkers—in case the United States invaded Burma, a highly unlikely event.
Many foreign officials, writers and companies concluded that the generals were crazy, and that their backward country would never change. “You cannot reason with those chaps,” a Singaporean diplomat who had spent considerable time in Burma told me. “They don’t act like other countries.” Cables written by American diplomats and released by WikiLeaks show that the US embassy viewed Than Shwe as a paranoid leader completely out of touch with his own country, not to mention the rest of the world.
In fall 2007 tens of thousands of Buddhist monks, the most respected figures in Burmese society, rose up against the government, marching through the streets of Rangoon. The Saffron Revolution appeared to have taken the government by surprise, but officials wasted no time in dispersing the protests and raiding the monasteries, locking up some monks and beating and killing others. Meanwhile, in eastern and northeastern Burma, the army allegedly launched campaigns of mass rape, looting and wholesale burning of ethnic minority villages.