Burma has been, for many outsiders, a forgotten place, a land where little ever changes. Western guidebooks enthuse about the fact that, alone in East Asia, Burmese still wear traditional dress—longyi sarongs—and women wear thanaka, a chalky paste made from bark and applied to the face as a natural sunscreen. Visitors from neighboring nations see in Burma vestiges of the slower, seemingly more relaxed life common forty years ago in Thailand or Singapore. They often single out the open-air teashops, often without electricity, where customers spend hours sipping warm green tea and eating samosas and mohinga noodles beneath a skyline of gold-encrusted temples and crumbling colonial facades.
If visitors know anything about this country of some 55 million people, it's that for nearly five decades Burma was ruled by a military regime. The junta outlasted nearly every other army in the region, leaving Burma, until the election held in 2010, among the few remaining military dictatorships in the developing world. And Burma's generals seemed to conform to every image of thuggish men in green. In 1989 they locked up opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), decisively won Burma's only free election in decades the next year, and then they ignored the outcome. They oversaw massive infrastructure projects built with forced labor, and adopted an acronym for the government—SLORC (later changed)—that sounded like a James Bond villain. They dominated a state media that, in its unswerving fealty to the regime and its bombastic attacks on critics and outsiders, made the Soviet-era Pravda look as flashy and open-minded as Vanity Fair.