WASHINGTON -- When I visited the vexing and beautiful country historically named Burma 10 years ago, even I was frightened by the terrified silence of the people. When approached by a stranger, they often ran in fright. One night in the elegantly refurbished old Strand Hotel, my effort to send an email to my office was the signal for everyone in the lobby to freeze in place.
Outside, the streets, which had not changed since the British were in South Asia, were silent. Booksellers did not speak. And up north, beyond Mandalay, Burmese would tell you fleetingly about how whole villages would be emptied out for slave labor to build the military's wealth in oil, gas and natural gems.
The West solemnly accepted the fear and the terror. Who could change it?
Now -- amazingly -- all of this seems to be changing. The mysterious new president, a former military officer named Thein Sein, barely heard of before, is overseeing a reformist government that has even released "the lady," Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, to travel around the world. Most important, this president-from-nowhere is encouraging investment from the outside world, which has for 49 years been locked out of Burma -- or, as the military calls it, Myanmar.
But, even while we stand on the sidelines and cheer, we are facing a major test of American dedication to human rights, especially among big Western enterprises like Chevron, General Electric and Caterpillar. We are taking part in an experiment in which the big companies nearly alone will oversee the end of the story, and if those companies simply partner with Burmese enterprises known for the use of slave labor and oppression under the military regime it would be a terrible example for America at just the wrong time and in just the wrong place.
Let's face what we are talking about. Aung San Suu Kyi, the slim, beautiful and brave daughter of Burma's hero general and the woman whom the military kept locked up in her lake house since she overwhelmingly won the elections of 1990, has already warned Western companies about the Burma economic setup.
Since its takeover of the country, the military has run just about everything, especially the state-run energy company (a cesspool of corruption). Until today, American sanctions kept American companies out of these areas, except Chevron, which had special permission. Don't take part yet, Aung San Suu Kyi warned the West. That would only strengthen the old military and corrupt you.
And prominent Thai senator Kraisak Choonhavan, a respected politician in Thailand, warned recently in The Christian Science Monitor: "It is ludicrous to reward the current government's untested reforms by paving the way for a gold rush. Fighting in Myanmar's ethnic areas continues, and many of the ethnic leaders are concerned that these reforms are just a ploy to pave the way for 'development' projects on their lands."
But Burma's largely untouched massive mineral and gem resources, valued at billions of dollars, are catnip to foreign businesses. The hotel shops literally flow over with the most gorgeous ruby and emerald necklaces one has ever seen. But when you go up north, where little can be seen under the dense forest cover, you will find, as we did, lines of villagers, tied together and marching as slave labor to work the mines, as their women, more than likely raped by the soldiers, remained behind.
Until now, the military has been singularly uninterested in expressions of humane concern for the country and its people. The response of one soldier to our complaints: "We protect the homeland, and they work for the economy. They ought to do something."
To his great credit, when President Obama announced that sanctions against Burma would be lifted, he definitely omitted military-run enterprises and said that U.S. companies will have to "report on their activities in line with international corporate governance standards."
These are fine-sounding words but, as we have witnessed in so much of the world, they are not often carried through.
The first company to do new business in Burma, GE, which is going to provide X-ray machines for cardiology to two private hospitals, is a company that proudly does not pay taxes in America. Caterpillar has already been doing business there through an independent dealer. And Coca Cola, Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Goldman Sachs and Google are all in the waiting line.
These companies, which will, once accepted, be licensed through the new reformist government, will have a more dominant voice than diplomats, announcing through their acts to the world what America is all about. Can American companies do it right this time? Can they stand for decent employment and fair pay, and not only enormous profits for themselves? If so, what a good example of conscientious capitalism Burma would be to the world.