When I first visited Burma for the Independent in 1991, months after Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) had won a landslide election victory, the country was known as a quaint relic of empire. Western visitors were obliged to take an expensive, one-week guided tour of the country by bus and shaky old Fokker plane. But if the idea was to deflect our gaze from contemporary misery to glorious heritage, it did not succeed. As the tour bus took us through Rangoon's outskirts, our guide scoffed at the patriotic exhortations on the billboards, and pointed out the new roads that had been constructed by forced labour. In Bagan, that amazing plain, full of temples, another guide told me that the entire population of a village had been uprooted and forced to move en masse several kilometres to the south to make way for new hotels and restaurants. When I told him that I wanted to see where the villagers had been dumped, a bicycle was procured and late that evening I was taken to meet them.
It took great courage for these men and women to point out to me the regime's crimes. That they were still willing to do so bore witness to the depth of their estrangement from Burma's generals. In the election of 1990, the official party of the regime received a tiny fraction of the vote, whereas the NLD won the backing of 82 per cent. Every Burmese knew that the government, headed by the chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) junta, Senior General Than Shwe, had no right to rule.
When I returned 11 years later, I found that, superficially at least, Rangoon had been transformed. In the mid-Nineties, around the time of Suu Kyi's first release from house arrest (she has endured years of enforced solitude in her decaying villa on Rangoon's Inya Lake), the regime had opened Burma up to foreign investors. Rangoon was rudely refashioned, new multi-storey hotels giving the city a modern profile, coats of paint (in lieu of gold leaf) making its ancient shrines - the stupa - shine again.
But that brief boom hit the buffers in 1997. Since then, the country has been getting ever poorer, while its corrupt rulers get richer. Once, Burma was known as the rice basket of south-east Asia. Today its GDP is estimated to be $74.3bn (£38.9bn), with a GDP per capita of $1,700 (£889), the lowest in a region that includes Bangladesh, Laos and Vietnam. Burma ranks 190th out of 191 countries in healthcare delivery; 36 per cent of children under five are moderately to severely underweight; one in ten babies dies before its fifth birthday. The country's education system is in ruins: Burma spends 0.3 per cent of its GDP on education, while its far wealthier neighbours spend roughly 3 per cent. One-third of its children complete less than five years of schooling. Universities are forced to remain closed for years on end. Provision of basic services is as bad as in the most corrupt and impoverished parts of India: neighbouring Thailand, for example, has 20 times as many roads per square kilometre. At the same time, 50 per cent of the regime's budget is spent on the military.
Revenue from foreign firms contracted to exploit Burma's gas and other resources, and kickbacks from drug producers and dealers, explain why the generals grow richer while the Burmese standard of living continues to slide. CountryWatch places Burma 191st out of 192 countries both in total trade and in the ratio of total trade to GDP, but firms such as Total continue to bail the generals out. The French oil giant signed its first Burmese contract in 1992. In 2002-2003 it obtained gross revenue of $921m (£482m) from the natural gas fields in the south of the country, contributing nearly 30 per cent of Bur ma's earnings. A newly opened gas reserve in the west of the country, now under bidding by Korean, Chinese and Indian companies, is set to bring the regime billions of dollars in revenue. More than 90 per cent of the world's rubies come from here. The involvement of the Chinese, Thais and others in the timber trade is also believed to be huge, but is off the books.
Yet the regime's failure to make political or economic reforms - "It seems to lack both the capacity and the will to tackle the country's severe macroeconomic imbalances," one report concluded - has led many foreign investors to disengage, and in 2003 Burma experienced a severe banking crisis.
Frozen in time
Politically the country remained stalled, frozen in the brutal, outrageous aftermath of the elections of 1990. Suu Kyi was released again in 2002, with the regime making the mistake of thinking that years of demonisation through the state- controlled media had worked. They had denounced her "feminine nature", her "womanly wiles"; she was no more than "an ordinary housewife". Suu Kyi felt unable to leave her country when her husband, the Oxford academic Michael Aris, was dying of cancer in Britain in 1999; still, her marriage to a foreign national and her years of residence abroad made her an "alien" who "had never tasted pickled bamboo shoot curry". But when crowds braved the military presence to greet her at her home or her party headquarters, the regime's error became apparent; so they locked her up again.
The forward march of time had ceased. "Not only are events dated from their proximity to the uprising," wrote the anthro pologist Monique Skidmore in her book Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the politics of fear, "but time is also conceived to move differently. Time no longer 'flows', it now 'pools'. There is no sense of progression. The nation comprises a nation in waiting."
Skidmore, who lived among ordinary Burmese in Rangoon for several months in the mid-1990s, found a population infested by regime spies at every level, where a show of eager support for the junta is the price to be paid for promotion at work or any other favour, while bribes, known as "line money", are extorted by the regime at every turn. The ubiquitous presence of the military, and its propensity for jailing even the mildest of dissidents (Amnesty International says there are more than 1,000 political prisoners in the country, including many elected MPs), have the effect of terrorising the mass of Burmese. Skidmore recalled one woman finally summoning the courage to whisper to her that she knew "Aung San Suu Kyi's phone number". The mere possession of such knowledge becomes a terrifying act of defiance.
With a population of more than 50 million, Burma is a big regional player - too big, and too strategically placed in the armpit of China and India, to be either ignored or readily brought to heel. Although the UN's General Assembly and Human Rights Commission have repeatedly condemned the regime, the UN Security Council has refused to get involved. The get-out clause for France and China - both up to their necks in trade with the junta - is that, however unappetising the SPDC, however gross its human-rights violations, it presents no threat to the peace, security and stability of the region. But last year Václav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu took the glaring fact of "Myanmar's" illegitimacy and sponsored a study into its consequences. This may at last be a step in the right direction.
The Burmese junta has shown dogged persistence in keeping its country's legitimate rulers under lock and key or in exile abroad. Today, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), formed in 1990 in the rebel town- ship of Manerplaw near the Thai-Bur m ese border (where I visited the organisation a year later) is still hanging on at its base in Washington, DC. It has a prime minister, Dr Sein Win, and its strength is, as Suu Kyi's ecstatic welcome around the country in 2002 and 2003 proved, that it still has a network of support across Burma.
But the junta does not give an inch. In May this year, Kofi Annan's special envoy Ibrahim Gambari was allowed to meet Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi, and came away with the impression that her liberty was imminent. The claim made headlines around the world in the run-up to Suu Kyi's 61st birthday. Once he was safely out of the country, however, the junta extended her house arrest for another year. When Annan tried to speak to Than Shwe to find out what was going on, Burma's reclusive strongman refused to take the call.
If anything, the junta's position has hardened over the past three years. When the former military intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt became prime minister in 2003, he announced a "road map to democracy" that would include parliamentary elections leading to the formation of a new government. A little over a year later he was shunted aside, placed under house arrest and accused of corruption. He was replaced by Lieutenant General Soe Win, who directed the murderous attack on Suu Kyi and her convoy on 30 May 2003. Than Shwe is said to have banned the mention of Suu Kyi's name in his presence. Gambari reported that she is no longer allowed regular access to her doctor.
But the Security Council is one of the few things the junta may genuinely fear. France and Japan, another friend of Burma, have agreed to come on board; China and Russia are finding it increasingly hard to resist the pressure. Maybe this is what it will take to get Burmese time flowing forward again. It is one potent weapon that has yet to be tried.
Burma by numbers
500,000 number of soldiers out of a population of 50 million
19 the annual sum, in pence, spent per person on health
30,900 hectares of opium poppies cultivated in 2003
15 years in jail: penalty for unlicensed possession of a fax machine or modem
4,445,633 number of pagodas built, according to legend, at Bagan
540,000 estimated number of internally displaced people
68 percentage of the population that is Burman. The largest other groups are the Shan (9 percent) and Karen (7 per cent)
25 length in feet of a fully grown Burmese python, which can also live for more than 25 years
17 percentage of schools with safe drinking water