Barack Obama in Rangoon

ap-myanmar-us-obama_001-4_3_r560.jpgIn 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 U.S. troops were pulled out of Saigon in 1975, and I realize 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 U.S. 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.

For atmosphere, a bus in downtown Rangoon five years ago:


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 liberalizing world. When good news occurs, it's worth noticing.

Two more scenes from Rangoon, ca. 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:


Toothpaste ad:


Government buildings:


A few more links worth checking are here and here.

*Note on terminology: The military regime that seized power in the late 1980s renamed the country "Myanmar." Since then, the U.S. 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.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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