In the 1970s and early 1980s, when I first went there, Burma could both repel and charm. General Ne Win had seized power in 1962 and set the country on a wayward course, what he called “the Burmese Way to Socialism,” different from all others and puzzling to political theorists. The Union of Burma was closed off from the rest of the world, its economy nationalized and allowed to stagnate. Such funds as were available from the sale of drugs and timber (there was extensive deforestation) were spent on arms to crush various ethnic minorities who wished to secede as well as political rivals to right and left.
Burma had been a major exporter of rice before the Japanese invasion during World War II; but by the 1980s only just enough was being produced to feed the ethnic Burmans of the central Irrawaddy valley—pious Buddhists who seemed content if they had some to spare for the begging bowls of the innumerable monks and also, perhaps, a little cash to buy gold leaf for the embellishment of stupas, pagodas, and statues. Burma has been called the most religious country in the world. It was said that when an international organization demonstrated the way rice harvests in Burma could be doubled by adopting new farming methods and new types of fertilizer, Burmese farmers welcomed the innovations and eagerly adopted them—only to cultivate in future half the number of paddy fields, to allow more time for meditation. This may be only a slight exaggeration of an attitude of mind that enraged bien-pensant agronomists and economists, who ranked Burma among the ten poorest countries in the world, although it is potentially rich in oil and minerals as well as rice.
Burma was less firmly closed to the outside world than Cambodia, Laos, or Albania, but visitors were allowed to stay for no longer than seven days. Travel beyond Rangoon, only by air or rail, was limited to the towns of primary interest to tourists, Pagan, Mandalay, and Taunggyi. Journalists were excluded altogether, and other writers were obliged to sign a declaration that they would publish nothing about what they had seen, done, or heard.
Yet Burma’s isolation could seem an almost heroic gesture of renunciation. When we arrived from Bangkok, the total absence of pollution—whether atmospheric (no heavy industry and very little motor traffic), aural (no transistors), or visual (no advertisements)—was certainly soothing. Rangoon remained unchanged since the British left in 1947; even the street names survived—Godwin Road, Dalhousie Street, Scott’s Market, and so on. Time seemed to have stopped even earlier in the Strand Hotel. It was still just as it was in the 1930s when Somerset Maugham stayed there and enjoyed luxurious accommodation then rare in Asia: large fan-cooled bedrooms, spacious bathrooms with tubs in which one could float full length, and, mercifully, no TV sets or refrigerated mini-bars that switch themselves on and off throughout the night.
A showcase of lost property by …