Public demonstrations and violence flared in Burma this week, leaving as many as 1,000 dead and thousands more injured or imprisoned, and driving the president of the one-party state from office after only 17 days in power. But the response from abroad has been general apathy.
The reason is that Burma is a mystery to much of the world. It is not only a remote jungle nation, but it has deliberately withheld itself from the rest of society.It is self-sufficient, aloof, and xenophobic. It is determinedly non-aligned, refusing to lean left or right, although the government describes itself as socialist. Even its neighbors of India, China, and Thailand are kept at arm's length.
Burma is potentially the richest country in Southeast Asia with vast deposits of oil, tin, tungsten, jade, rubies, and enormous teak forests, and some of the richest rice land anywhere. Yet it shows no interest in trade, has no foreign business community, hardly any development projects, and foreign diplomats are seldom allowed to leave Rangoon.
It was given its independence in 1947, but a military coup in 1962 left the army in command. All communications are monitored, people are thoroughly searched when they enter or leave the country, foreigners are followed everywhere, and dissidents are sent to a terrible prison.
However, the government controls only a part of Burma. Just like the Asia of more than 50 years ago, various of the country are ruled by warlords with their private armies, drug smugglers, ethnic rebels, and well-armed communist guerrillas supplied by China.
What touched off this week's rebellion is unclear. The new president, Sein Lwin, a known hard-liner, had been in office only 17 days. Out of this dreary atmosphere there suddenly were demands for democracy, a multi-party system, release of political prisoners, and respect for individual civil rights.
Those goals are unlikely to be reached. Although Lwin has stepped down, there is little to replace the existing one-party state except for anarchy. The most likely prospect is that someone like Lwin, but less dogmatic, will be named to the presidency.
But Burma is stirring, and a thirst for freedom and progress, even in a backward, remote, and repressive society, cannot be denied forever.