National Geographic : 1995 Jul
* The stairway to heaven is narrow and steep, and it climbs a 300-foot lava plug crowned by Buddhist temples. The plug rises from the slope of Mount Popa, where thousands of pilgrims flock each In Rangoon one bicyclist tells me he wants to fight SLORC. I point to the growing crowd and warn him to be careful. He leans close, whis pers "One day, maybe explode," and pedals away. Others shout for my attention. To dis cuss repression? No. They urge me to visit their shops. Later I stroll through a newly opened mini mart. Rickety stairs lead to two more floors, all full of such items as frying pans, pens, and canned foods. One man shakes his head as he surveys electric generators. "Until two years ago we had nothing. People prized even paper clips," he says. "In our hearts we beg for democracy, but people enjoy too much what is allowed now." The magnetic pull of consumer goods can be seen in a curious Burmese habit: People leave brand-name stickers on plates, glasses, and utensils. OUTHEAST ASIA has some of the world's fastest growing economies, so Burma may take off. About the size of Texas, the country possesses extraordinary natural resources: more teak than any other place in the world; petroleum; minerals; rubies, jade, and other gems; raw rubber; and rice, fish, and other foodstuffs. Burma is not poor. It is a rich country gone wrong. Burma offers another plentiful resource: cheap labor. The DTK garment factory, about 15 miles north of Rangoon, is typical of those now found throughout the developing world. Twelve hundred women are sewing. The owners are high-ranking military officers and their South Korean partners-such military foreign partnerships dominate the economy. To get a job at DTK-coveted in a country with high unemployment-one must have a relative with the rank of sergeant or above. Investors in such ventures argue that their dollars will stimulate the economy and moti vate SLORC to loosen its grip. Many Western governments and Burma's pro-democracy leaders disagree, insisting that meaningful movement toward democracy should precede foreign investment. SLORC counts on compassion fatigue, outsid ers becoming saturated with images of suffer ing in faraway places. SLORC also tells potential investors that its roughness has been neces sary. In Rangoon a delegation of Japanese business executives watches a video of a small crowd in 1988: Someone stabs an accused gov ernment informer. Chopping. Sawing. His head falls off. A few such horrors did occur. The actions of agents provocateurs? Evidence of public rage? No, says SLORC. This is how the people act without strong leadership. National Geographic,July 1995 May to a festival honor ing a multitude of terres trial spirits called nats. Burma's Buddhists have a healthy respect for the nats, who bestow favors on those who honor them and inflict punish ment on nonbelievers.