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Japan Times editorial

Japan Times, Aug. 12, 1995

Seven years ago this week, prodemocracy demonstrators filled the streets of
Rangoon, Myanmar's capital. Six months of protests against military rule in
Myanmar was to culminate in a nationwide strike Aug. 8, an auspicious day -
the eighth day of the eighth month of the 88th year - in the Buddhist
calendar.  The military government responded with savage fury, ordering its
troops to fire on and kill hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed
demonstrators. The death toll is still unknown: At the time, doctors put the
number of victims in Rangoon alone at 3,000 people; a week later, the
government reported 112 dead and 267 wounded.

Protests continued for another month, but the government had made it clear
that it would brook no opposition. In September, the military established a
new ruling body, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, that finally
crushed the opposition and has continued to rule Myanmar until this day.
During its nearly seven years in power, SLORC has overturned the results of
a general election in 1990 that it lost, confined its chief rival - Ms. Aung
San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize - to house arrest,
imprisoned or exiled almost all opposition politicians, and waged a
genocidal war against rebel groups.

SLORC's record is so miserable that the allure of Myanmar's fabulous natural
resources, its rock-bottom wage rates and the promise of cooperation in the
fight against international drug trafficking have proved to be insufficient
inducements to permit the nation to break out of its international
isolation. But SLORC is learning.

In the past year, it has waged a peace offensive with the rebel groups,
promised to take the fight to the drug kingpins and, in a stunning move,
last month released Ms. Suu Kyi after six years of house arrest. It is
indicative of SLORC's savvy that the news of her release was first conveyed
to the Japanese Embassy in Rangoon, acknowledgment of the vital economic
support this nation has given to the regime.

The emergence of a "new" SLORC is being touted as a victory for the policy
of  "constructive engagement" that the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations has pursued in its relations with Myanmar.  Pressed by Western
nations to turn its back on the regime, ASEAN has instead used the carrot to
get the military to moderate its behavior. It is tempting to say that
"constructive engagement" has worked - but the truth is more complex.

SLORC continues to foist a sham constitution on the people. No dialogue with
the opposition has begun. Ms. Suu Kyi has been released, but government
officials have made it clear that her marriage to a foreigner disqualifies
her - in their eyes - from holding office. Since many other leading
opposition figures are still in prison, it is unclear who the military would
even talk to.

The government's real outlook was revealed in recent comments by Lt. Gen.
Khin Nyunt, first among equals in the military leadership. Lt. Gen. Khin
Nyunt was unrepentant about the events of seven years ago. He and his
cronies continue to believe that democracy demonstrators posed a genuine
threat to the survival of his country and that the military had to intervene
to protect the nation.

If they really have Myanmar's best interest at heart, the military dictators
must end the pretense and genuinely democratize their nation's politics.
Myanmar, officially labeled one of the world's poorest countries by the
World Bank, desperately needs help. It has the highest inflation rate in
Asia and a foreign debt that is mushrooming out of control. The nation's
total debt is estimated to be $5.5 billion, it is already $1 billion in
arrears and it had foreign exchange reserves of only $533 million in March.

SLORC's continuing refusal to honor the wishes of the people of Myanmar is
what keeps foreign businesses from investing in the country and prevents
sympathetic governments from offering anything more than humanitarian
assistance. SLORC hoped that Ms. Suu Kyi's release would trigger a flood of
new investment and aid. She frustrated those hopes by asking potential
investors and donors to wait and see how things develop.

Her words have slowed the unseemly race by the Japanese government and firms
here to return to a nation with which they have a long history, but it is
unclear how long they will be checked. A Japanese government delegation will
travel to Myanmar this month to investigate projects for official
development assistance. Banks are already lining up to reopen offices in
Rangoon. The joy that greeted Ms. Suu Kyi's release was understandable, but
SLORC still calls the shots in Myanmar. The record of its seven years in
power is reason enough to pause.

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