Near the old colonial waterfront in downtown Yangon, Myanmar's capital, groups of squatters dwell on a patch of ragged weeds. In a city famed for its golden pagodas, they build crumbling temporary shelters, beg for kyat (the nearly worthless local currency), and try to avoid police and army soldiers. Across town, another group of ramshackle buildings, belonging to the Department of Atomic Energy, draws considerably more interest from the troops, who maintain a quiet but powerful presence throughout this military-ruled country. Although Yangon can barely maintain its crumbling electricity grid, and the ruling junta spends minuscule amounts on social services for the Texas-sized Southeast Asian country's 42 million citizens, the department is drawing up plans to build a nuclear reactor with Russian help. Russia also is selling Myanmar MIG-29 fighter jets, which will cost the Myanmar regime a total of $130 million -- cash that may come from money laundering linked to the extensive narcotics production that the government tolerates.
Such scenes reveal the difficulty of formulating policy toward the complex country formerly known as Burma (the current regime renamed the country in 1989). Myanmar has been an international pariah since 1988, when the United States first censured its government for brutally suppressing pro-democracy street protests. To some, Myanmar's burgeoning economic disaster -- the squatters actually are not Yangon's most destitute citizens -- and its looming HIVffiaids crisis necessitate increasing aid, even though state mismanagement, more than sanctions, has hindered development. This engagement-oriented view has gained traction among some aid workers, Myanmar citizens, and foreign policy experts in recent months. It has gathered special impetus since the military government and the pro-democracy opposition, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have initiated secret talks that might include a discussion between Suu Kyi and the regime about the feasibility of attracting more aid to Myanmar.
For other Myanmar experts, including many representatives of human rights groups, a junta that showers money on arms purchases and dubious nuclear programs while the economy rots, profits