The taxi, a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air that is kept running on locally crafted spare parts, rattles down the road past decomposing but still inhabited Edwardian buildings. Moss, weeds, even small trees sprout from the dust that years of neglect have collected on their ledges and in their crevices. In front of these colonial relics, men in traditional wraparound skirts called longyis hawk second-hand Life magazines dating from the early 1960s.
In many ways, Burma today looks like a land that time forgot. A place that, walled in by its leaders' isolationist vision of an utterly self-reliant and uniquely Burmese society, has let the world pass it by for 20 years.
Yet today there are also signs of change.
"The Burmese way to socialism," the inward-looking program launched by Gen. Ne Win after he seized power in a 1962 military coup, has altered course. After years of decline, the economy is on a new, more profit-oriented and innovative path.
Underlying the changes--although the still staunchly nonaligned Burmese government is loath to admit it--is a tilt toward the West.
Shunned for years under the government's xenophobic policies, foreign aid now is flowing in at a rate of about $500 million a year, the bulk of it from Western donors. After having refused economic aid from the United States and the Soviet Union for most of the past two decades, the Burmese government signed an agreement in October for $30 million in U.S. agricultural assistance over a four-year period.
Economic growth has been steadily climbing, reaching 8.3 percent last year and is expected to hit 9 percent this year.
Foreign trade has tripled since 1976, and a highly successful "green revolution" aimed at raising agricultural productivity has yielded record rice harvests in each of the past four years.
More visibly, the rattletrap cars, vintage motorcycles, pre-World War II buses, bicycles, trishaws, oxcarts and horse-drawn carriages that ply Burma's streets must increasingly compete for space with shiny new Toyotas and other recent imports. Lately, Rangoon has even been experiencing a previously unknown urban phenomenon, the traffic jam.
In addition, more buildings are being restored and repainted. And the educational system is being revamped, with renewed emphasis on teaching English in this former British colony. English lessons now are broadcast regularly on the state-owned radio and television network.
All this is a change in a country that once virtually shut itself off from the outside world in an effort to get rid of foreign influence.
Why anyone should care which way Burma now tilts is illustrated by a few statistics. Mostly it is a question of natural resources: oil, natural gas, rice, teak, fisheries, minerals and precious stones.
"This is a large country and more important than is commonly recognized," one Western diplomat said in explaining foreign interest in aiding Burma. About the size of France, it is the biggest nation in mainland Southeast Asia and one of the few in the world that is largely self-sufficient in both food and energy.
Once one of the world's leading rice exporters, the country saw its foreign sales drop from 1962 to 1975 to about a third of their level when Ne Win began his disastrous socialist experiment. But thanks to new high-yield rice strains imported from the Philippines and modified here, productivity has shot up dramatically, and rice exports by the end of the year are expected to reach 80 percent of their 1962 level of 1.9 million tons, according to Western economic experts.
Even so, the sources estimate, only half of Burma's available arable land is under cultivation, and only 12 percent of that is irrigated.
With about 34 million people, Burma has a population density of 130 per square mile, one of the lowest in Southeast Asia.
Under the circumstances, one expert said, Burma has probably "the largest potential for agricultural production increases in East Asia."
Moreover, the country's oil and gas reserves have been inadequately explored, mainly because of the government's refusal to allow foreign firms to drill on Burmese soil. A Japanese consortium signed an accord in February to conduct more politically acceptable exploratory drilling offshore in the Gulf of Martaban starting later this year.
Burma also supplies 80 percent of the world's teak and is the world's largest producer of jade. In addition, the country has sizable deposits of sapphires and rubies, as well as copper, tungsten, lead and zinc.
Potentially rich fishing waters have remained basically untouched except by poachers from Thailand and India, economists say.
"What the Burmese have done is stand still for 20 years," one diplomat said. "If they hadn't had this socialist experiment for 20 years, they would be far ahead of Thailand by now, since their natural resource base is much stronger."
As it happens, Burma remains the world's 10th poorest country, with a per capita income of $174 last year, compared to more than $800 in neighboring Thailand. However, the poverty is fairly evenly spread, a Western economic expert reported.
Still, "things have been getting better over the last couple of years" since the shift in economic direction in the mid-1970s, a diplomat said. "The realization was suddenly brought home at the top that things weren't going well at all."
Not only did growth plunge 18 percent in 1973 and inflation climb to 31 percent by 1975, but student riots and factory strikes rocked the government during that period. Foreign aid was sought to get the economy moving, first from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, then from bilateral donors. They eventually included the United States, but not--despite Moscow's persistent offers--the Soviet Union.
Why the government did not change course earlier during the long years of decline has never been officially explained.
"It's hard when you announce a brave new ideology like the Burmese way to socialism," a diplomat said. "How do you then announce that you were absolutely wrong?" He added that "the disillusionment at the top is profound."
Still at the top is Ne Win. Although the 70-year-old leader resigned as president last year--citing his age, health and a desire for a peaceful transition--he still effectively runs the country as head of the sole political party, the Burma Socialist Program Party.
Described as a "nonsinister police state" by one foreign observer, Ne Win's Burma does not brook any political opposition, but it has not dealt particularly harshly with dissidents.
In a move seen by some diplomats as a Buddhist desire to clear his slate before he dies, Ne Win last year declared an amnesty for his political opponents. About 2,000 opponents accepted the offer, including exiled former prime minister U Nu, but the major rebel groups largely spurned it.
The biggest among them, the China-backed Burmese Communist Party, fields as many as 20,000 troops and controls a large swath of territory along the Chinese border. The government negotiated with leaders of the group for several months last year, but the talks broke down.
Other insurgencies are being waged by various tribal groups including the Karens, Kachins, Shans and Lahus. Some of the rebel groups essentially are narcotics trafficking gangs operating in the Golden Triangle, the fertile opium-growing region along the border with Thailand and Laos.
Although the insurgencies represent a severe drain on national wealth and a brake on development, they are not considered a serious threat to the government unless they unite, which seems highly unlikely.
Of more immediate concern in Rangoon and other cities is the seeming indifference that years of one-party rule have instilled in many Burmese.
"We're apathetic, we're indifferent to the government," said a Burmese writer. "That's what has caused the failures by the government. People won't cooperate with the government. The brains of the country are not with them."
Another Burmese critic said there was "no active opposition, but a passive one" in the capital. "This you can see in government offices where work is very slack and discipline very weak," he added.
With even government ministers drawing salaries of no more than $280 a month, corruption is rife "at all levels," this source said. For example, he said it costs about 5,000 kyats, or nearly $700 at the official exchange rate, in bribes to various government employes to bring a new car into the country.
"You even have to pay bribes to buy spare parts," he said.
"The Burmese way to socialism is unique," said a former Rangoon government official with a wry smile. "It couldn't happen in any other country."