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Opposition in Burma
Burmese Relief Center--Japan
DATE:May 2, 1995
TIME: 7:06PM JST
Subject:Opposition Inside Burma, from The Observer
BRAVE DEFY FEAR IN BATTLE FOR DEMOCRACY
Burma's military junta has been unable to silence the
Catherine Field reports from Rangoon for The Observer
(Reprinted in The Guardian Weekly April 23, 1995)
In Burma little is what it seems. The military regime
appears to have an unquestioned grip on power. The
opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is under house arrest,
where she has been since 1989. A massive offensive against
the Karen rebels in the east has forced them to desert their
stronghold at Manerplaw.
Without Suu Kyi, the opposition National League for
Democracy, which struck fear into the heart of the junta in
1988 with its popular pro-democracy uprising, is leaderless
and divided. But its members remain brave.
In a discreet show of support some Burmese women are to
mark Suu Kyi's birthday this week by eating only vegetarian
food and making rice offerings to Buddha. In Mandalay,
which has an active underground democracy network, tape
recordings of songs praising Suu Kyi's determination are
traded in student dormitories and street cafes. And, despite
strict laws forbidding government opponents from talking to
journalists, a few risk prison to meet reporters secretly in
the hope that news of the junta's latest excesses is passed
"Things are happening here that no one would have dared
to imagine at the time Slorc (the State Law and Order
Restoration Council) took over," said an opposition
politician. "If I were them, I couldn't sleep at night."
Another said: "This is essentially a fascist government. The
military has never changed their idea that politicians have no
role to play."
There was optimism last year after two highly publicised
meetings between Suu Kyi and top Slorc officials. But the
gesture -- part of a Slorc campaign to shed its status as an
international pariah -- was empty. Suu Kyi demanded her
colleagues be allowed to attend any future meetings; the
regime refused. The Slorc insists that if released she should
shun politics for five years.
Last month the regime seemed to signal a change of heart
by releasing 31 political prisoners, including Tin Oo and Kyi
Maung, the two most prominent opposition figures freed
since April 1992. But, human rights monitors say,
thousands arrested since 1988, including 26 members of the
1990 parliament-elect, remain in detention. Only a handful
of the 300 monks held during fierce anti-government rallies
in Mandalay in October 1990 has been released.
The junta's power comes from the secret police, the
Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence, whose
tentacles reach into every aspect of life. Diplomats estimate
that one in seven Burmese works for the service or is an
"Until 1962 we had a law that meant anyone taken in by
police had to be released within 24 hours or charged," said a
Rangoon University student. "Now they knock at the door
at night and just take you away, no one knows where or for
Another Burmese said: "There is real resentment at how this
government is run, particularly towards the arrogance and
brutality of the Burmese army."
Thousands of Burmese civilians are forced to work for the
military, checking for land mines by walking ahead of army
patrols, building bunkers, fetching water and cutting trees.
The junta claims they are all unemployed labourers who
volunteer rather than sit at home but Human Rights
Watch/Asia says they are all subject to physical abuse and
that many are severely beaten.
Three years of high inflation and six years of military rule
have crippled Burma economically and spiritually. The
environment is being pillaged by gem miners and logging
firms, and middle-class families are fleeing abroad. "We are
being left with a population of peasants that will breed
peasants," said a shopkeeper. "The intellectuals are all
In the main cities the retired, who find their state pension
cannot even pay their monthly electricity bill, are forced to
be street vendors. In the centre of Rangoon, women sit in
the raging heat selling iced water. Wizened men sell
individual corn plasters or repair umbrella. If lucky, they
will earn enough in a day to by a bowl of curry or a cup of
Abroad, Slorc seems to have mocked attempts to deny it
trade and diplomatic recognition; it is negotiating a multi-million dollar dea
l with China and a trade agreement with
India is in its final draft. Japan said last month it was ready
to resume some humanitarian aid.
Most countries have applied an arms embargo, but the
regime has been able to buy weapons, including jet fighters,
worth nearly 1.3 billion pounds from China, at favorable
The junta seems stronger than at any time since it grabbed
power in September 1988, and a new constitution is being
written which enshrines the military's role in governing
The opposition is directionless and split without Suu Kyi.
In keeping with their Buddhist beliefs, many see dialogue as
the only path. "Confrontation for confrontation's sake will
not work against Slorc." said an anti-government politician.
"Suu Kyi will have to allow herself to get into dialogue with
Slorc." But Suu Kyi, locked away in her family home, does
not agree, and she is the real threat to the junta.
"Slorc's overriding concern is internal security and
stability," said a westerner in Rangoon. "This overrides any
international pressure and any economic advantages they
could obtain by releasing Suu Kyi."
But Slorc must make a move within months. Suu Kyi's
sentence expires on July 20. Last year the junta lengthened
it by a year, declaring the first an arrest period. "They
cannot hold Suu Kyi past July on any interpretation of the
law, but there is nothing to stop them changing the law or
the offence she is being held under," said a Western