"The rest of the world goes by jet, we go by ox cart."

One of my Burmese friends made that comment a quarter century ago, a wry reference to the way the country was hurting. True, a popularly elected government was in power, the last Burma has known, but the country was at best lurching toward democracy and a modern living standard.Nothing has changed for the better in what is now known as the "Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma." Burma was out of our sight and mind for most of those years. Its desperate economic plight and political turmoil this year have, however, been unignorable.

The Burmese never really had a chance to come abreast of the modern world, their leaders usually choosing isolation as an answer to the nation's considerable problems.

One result is that it is a quaint country. The men and women both wear the traditional skirt, or longyi. The decaying capital, Rangoon, the only city of any consequence, still bears all the marks of a Kiplingesque colonial outpost, including the red Victorian government buildings. The Burmese are a charming but languid people. The Southeast Asian or Theravada brand of Buddhism is the most striking feature of the landscape, most prominently in the famous golden pagodas whose spires rise above Rangoon.

Another result of the isolationist policies is that Burma has denied itself foreign capital and technical and managerial support needed to develop its considerable oil, timber and agricultural potential. It hasn't built much industry above the cottage level. Its administrators have been by all accounts inept. The country once was the world's largest exporter of rice but for years has suffered severe rice shortages, at least in part because farmers balked at the low official prices and began to leave the land.

Why has Burma been so withdrawn?

Burma was ruled for 800 years by absolute monarchs, the descendants of Mongols. Even in the last century they refused to look beyond the icy Himalayas, the jungles and the sea that encase the Texas-sized country and adapt to the changing world.

Britain took over the country in three 19th century wars because Burma was a weak state between India and French Indochina. The British booted the king out of his capital at Mandalay and governed Burma as part of India through the Indian civil service.

In World War II the people at first cooperated with their Japanese conquerors against the British. When they learned that Japan's "East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere" was a hoax, merely changing one colonial master for another, they turned on the Japanese and helped drive them out. But Burma's economy was laid waste by the war's devastations. The British had found a poor people in a rich country and left them a poor people in a poor country.

The British also left a fragmented country. Burma calls itself a union but the federation is weak. It has a bewildering array of at least 50 ethnic groups, six major languages and various tribal tongues. Three important minorities, the Shans, Karens and Kachins, have warred against rule from Rangoon. Chinese opium traders work the "golden triangle" in north Burma with impunity. Many hill people don't care whether there is a central authority in Rangoon.

In 1947, Burma was the first country since the U.S. to win its independence from Britain. Even though Burma had been a relatively enlightened and permissive colonial master, the Burmese loathed colonialism so much and were so intent on building their own national identity that they chose not to join the British Commonwealth.

A decade of turmoil followed. It began with the machine-gunning of some of the new nation's most promising leaders, the young Burmese national hero and provisional premier, Aung San, and seven of his colleagues, by hirelings of a political rival.

The academic year I spent teaching in Rangoon, Burma's capital, in 1960-61, was far from calm. I remember vividly one particularly frightening riot in which students at the University of Rangoon, where I taught, demanded faster reforms, rampaged and set cars afire.

But the year was probably the most optimistic in the country's postwar history. Burma was between military governments. The first was invited in by parliament in October 1958 to restore order and end the bitter struggle in the government between the two factions of the major party. The split could have led to bloodshed and brought communist insurrectionists to power.

The 1958-1960 military government was hard-nosed, jailed many people, got corruption under control and cleaned up Rangoon in the most literal sense. However, it was not, strictly speaking, a dictatorship. Army officers were attached to ministries as policy directors. And the government stepped down voluntarily after 16 months. It is rare for a military government to give up power, and the military chief of staff, Gen. Ne Win, got worldwide praise and respect for doing so.

An elected government with the charismatic U Nu as premier took its place. Politicians and a lively press talked about attaining real democracy, free expression, and the rule of law. The country was avowedly Marxist but invited in foreign capital, largely in the form of joint ventures.

But many of the old problems persisted and Burma was too insecure to permit full civil liberties even in those years. Office holders harassed the "divisive" press, using a number of laws left over from British times plus some emergency acts. Editors were jailed now and again. Radio was used as a government propaganda arm.

Bandits and insurrectionists, including two rival groups of communists, controlled a third of the countryside. The nation had problems with many of its neighbors, including the two most powerful, India and China, and its politicians were still squabbling.

The military, which had had a taste of power, was restive and impatient. Brigadier Aung Gyi, then a key figure in the army establishment (though recently jailed by Ne Win as his most outspoken public critic) gave the hint of the army's intentions. In what came to be known as the "needle speech" he said that "a country that cannot even make a needle will go to the dogs."

Not long after that the military stepped in again. This time it took over in a coup, ostensibly to head off a threatened rebellion of leaders of the Shan state demanding greater autonomy within the federal system. Ne Win suspended the constitution and placed the nation under military rule of a revolutionary council.

Ne Win was a reclusive and xenophobic in the 26 years he ruled as a military dictator. He once said he wished the country could be towed out to sea away from its world problems. He "Burmanized," or excluded foreigners, from trade, kicked out the foreign aid agencies and ended tourism for years. He rejected all multinational treaties except membership in the United Nations.

He went all-out for the "Burmese Way to Socialism." The state took ownership of all land, expropriated all business, deported by the tens of thousands Indian and Chinese shopkeepers who had made the economy go.

He jailed political opponents and many others in the intelligentsia. Two audacious editors of English-language papers for whom I had great respect, Ed Law Yone of the liberal Nation and Sein Win of the Guardian, were jailed for five and three years respectively. Most newspapers were closed and those that remained, including Sein Win's and Law Yone's, were nationalized.

Although these policies were thawed from time to time and economic controls including rationing were relaxed last year to stimulate the moribund economy and ease food shortages, the policies were bankrupt. Last year student riots erupted, the first since 1974, when the government declared large denominations of currency notes worthless in an attempt to regulate the black market. The country applied for and got "least developed country" status from the U.N. a few months ago.

What is happening in Burma today can be read only in the light of the tortured postwar history of this unhappy land. Burma escaped none of the classic difficulties faced by the so-called emergent nations including tribalism, quarrels with its neighbors, vendettas among its leaders, insurrections, debt and economic stagnation. It did not emerge so much as regress under rigid leaders who chose to try to go it alone in an increasingly interdependent world.

In 1962, before the coup, I wrote that if Burma could remain free, it might point the way for other Third World nations taking the long road up from absolutism. My hopes were unwarranted. Now Burma is at a crossroads. But the quick demise of a promising civilian government and a brutal crackdown by still military regime make any new, even guarded, optimism about Burma's future seem unwarranted.