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/* Written  1:35 pm  Nov 23, 1992 by burma@xxxxxxxxxxx in igc:reg.seasia */
/* ---------- "BURMA'S PATH TO DEMOCRACY LOOKS VA" ---------- */
Executive News Svc.($)
    By Angus MacSwan
    RANGOON, Nov 23, Reuter - Almost three years after it rejected an opposition
election victory, Burma's military government is taking what it says is the
first step back to democracy.
    A national convention to discuss guidelines for drawing up a new
constitution will begin on January 9, but the political opposition and some
diplomats say the only sure thing about the convention is that it will
enshrine the military's role in politics.
    "We are laying the foundations for a multiparty system," said U Aye, the
foreign ministry's director general for political affairs. "There will be
participation from all walks of life."
    But a foreign diplomat disagreed, saying: "It's going to be a total farce
in terms of democratic aspirations. The delegates are handpicked and the SLORC
will present the findings."
    The SLORC -- the State Law and Order Restoration Council -- is the latest
embodiment of the military oligarchy that has ruled this former British colony
in suffocating fashion for the past three decades.
    The junta took direct power in 1988 as troops crushed a nationwide
democracy uprising by killing large numbers of demonstrators.
    It ignored the opposition victory in 1990 elections and stands
internationally condemned for systematic repression.
    Lately, however, the junta has eased up. About 1,200 political prisoners
have been released since April and some martial law decrees revoked.
    Arrests have stopped, diplomats say, and the lifting of the night curfew
has brought a noticeable easing of tension in the capital at least.
    Foreign journalists are being welcomed by urbane and articulate officials
such as U Aye who argue the military's case.
    Diplomats are divided as to whether this is just sleight of hand by the
junta to deflect international criticism and get foreign aid flowing again 
or a glimmer of light in Burma's dark ages.
    "Change yes, improvement no," said one. "Fundamentally it's the same."
    The optimists say Burma is not the only Asian country where the military has
played a leading role in politics. What is happening now must be welcomed and
encouraged, they say.
    Often mentioned is the example of Indonesia whose army, like Burma's, was
forged in an anti-colonial struggle and which still enjoys political
    Much about the convention remains vague -- how long it will last, when the
actual drafting of a constitution will begin and how much freedom of speech
will be allowed.
    "We would be lying if we said the process would take a month or few
months," U Aye said.
    He said he had no idea if elections would eventually be held or if the
National Assembly chosen in the 1990 elections would be allowed finally to
    The junta has already announced that the leading political role of the
armed forces will be enshrined.
    The right to seccession, laid down in the post-independence constitution
will also not be given, U Aye said.
    Rangoon governments have been fighting an array of ethnic insurgencies since
independence in 1948. The largest are the Kachin, the Shan and the Karen, who
are now weathering yet another government offensive in their bases on Burma's
eastern border with Thailand.
    "We cannot let our country disintegrate like Yugoslavia or the Soviet
Union," U Aye said.
    All this has confused what is left of the political opposition.
    Sources in Rangoon said they could not decide whether to go along with the
convention, seizing the chance to speak out but offering it some legitimacy,
or boycott it.
    "It's easier to fight each other than the SLORC," said one source sadly.
    How delegates are selected is also unclear.
    Diplomats said a man chosen to represent the intelligentsia is a columnist
for the Working People's Daily newspaper, which is devoted almost exclusively
to chronicling the junta's good deeds.
    A representative from one of the ethnic minorities is a well-known
black-marketeer, they said.
    The opposition in exile -- dissident students and politicians in Bangkok
and insurgents on the border -- has already dismissed the exercise as a joke.
    Nor is there any place for the opposition's single most important figure,
Aung San Suu Kyi, without whom national reconciliation would appear
    The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner is now in her fourth year of house arrest
and the junta has placed the condition on her release that she promise to give
up politics and leave the country.
    "You can forget about that individual," U Aye said. "She's finished."