By James Fallows
In time you get used to anything. I still do an occasional double-take at reminders that Vietnam is a de-facto military partner of the United States, given the 50,000-plus Americans who died in warfare there. (Yes, the same is true of former enemies like Germany and Japan, but they became "partners" under duress, by being conquered.) Then I remember that most of today's Americans had not been born when US troops were pulled out of Saigon in 1975, and I realise that fewer and fewer people would share my sense of surprise.
This is a long way of saying: I retain a sense of true astonishment at news that a US president is visiting Burma*. The only development that could be more deeply startling would be the rapid opening of North Korea. The opening of Cuba will be less surprising, because it is completely inevitable. The transformation of the Arab world is also different, in that it came in response to widespread protests.
Even five years ago, Burma seemed less profoundly miserable and in its own reality than North Korea, but almost as hermetic in its politics. Communication of all sorts in and out of the country was difficult; the regime operated with that dangerous combination, military oppression and superstition. The main surprise about Aung San Suu Kyi is that, although held captive, she survived physically.
Starting two-plus years ago, Burma's previously hard-shelled-seeming regime began opening up. Not long before that, it had remained so intractable that it stiff-armed international offers of help to rescue victims of a cyclone that killed tens of thousands of its people. There are all sorts of hypotheses about the reasons for the change — I discussed a book examining some of those ideas last year. And all sorts of problems and injustices and remain. But imagine the sense of surprise you would feel at the friendly visit of an American president to a North Korea that had decided to open itself up and join a liberalising world. When good news occurs, it's worth noticing.
Two more scenes from Rangoon, circa 2007. My wife and I have been in and through Burma several times, starting during the riots and the mass-suppression aftermath in 1988. First, school books for sale:
Note on terminology: The military regime that seized power in the late 1980s renamed the country "Myanmar." Since then, the US government and a number of entities have stuck with "Burma" — as did Aung San Suu Kyi and many of her supporters. She still uses "Burma" herself, but says that either name is okay with her. I will follow her lead.
This post was originally published at The Atlantic
20 November 2012