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Burma at the Crossroads

The dawn comes up like a sepia-toned fantasy at the Pansea hotel, with birdsong filtering through the lush trees and the sun flaring on the timeworn teak floors. I half expect to find Somerset Maugham taking tea on the veranda of this restored 1902 Rangoon mansion. In Burma, the old Asia still endures.

But the unsettling realities of present-day Myanmar—the nation's official name since the xenophobic military regime tossed out the colonial gazetteer in 1989—lie just beyond my boutique lodgings. As sarong-clad passengers pack the antique buses and rickshaws, I hail a decrepit taxi to Scott Market, intent on lacquerware. Newspaper hawkers soon besiege me with days-old editions of the Bangkok Post bearing the headline suu kyi to test junta's nerve.

So Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic Nobel Peace Prize laureate, continues to bedevil the ruling generals of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). A quiet academic who returned here from England in 1988 to care for her ailing mother, Suu Kyi quickly assumed the political mantle of her late, venerated father, General Aung San, who'd wrested independence from the British after World War II and was assassinated in 1947, when she was just a toddler. In her first public speech, on August 26, 1988, Suu Kyi made an impassioned appeal for nonviolent reform in front of several hundred thousand people, repeatedly invoking the memory of her martyred father. The following month, the army killed at least 3,000 pro-democracy protesters; less than a year later, the junta placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for six years. It has persecuted her on and off since then.

Lately, however, the situation seems to be improving. Last May, Suu Kyi was unconditionally released from another lengthy confinement, along with hundreds of other political prisoners. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has reopened dozens of offices around Burma.

This heartening news makes me wonder: Is Suu Kyi's release the harbinger of broader reform or merely window dressing?Should tourists now consider this longtime human-rights pariah—Suu Kyi still supports the tourism boycott she spearheaded in 1995—an acceptable vacation destination?For post-September 11 travelers, awareness—not just a mindfulness of one's immediate surroundings but an appreciation of context and country—has become critical. And few places demand more engagement, or provoke more controversy, than Burma.

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