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Gunning for control in a country on
- Subject: Gunning for control in a country on
- From: waterly@xxxxxxxxx
- Date: Mon, 27 Jan 1997 20:40:00
Subject: Gunning for control in a country on edge
South China Morning Post
January 25, 1997
HEADLINE: Gunning for control in a country on edge
BYLINE: There are tanks on the streets and troops brandish bayonets, but can
Burma's junta suppress popular dissent for much longer? Greg Torode visits
Rangoon and forecasts a sticky year for the generals
Political power, said Mao Zedong, comes from the barrel of a gun. Now in
Rangoon, more than 40 years later, the gun is becoming an omnipresent symbol.
Indeed, Burma's military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council
(SLORC), has entered the new year decidedly on edge.
Walk around the placid streets of this capital city and it is hard to
even a police officer. Yet underneath the festival lights at City Hall in the
town centre lie a row of five T-62 tanks, extra machine-guns mounted skywards
Follow saffron-robed monks towards the Shwedagon pagoda at dusk as the
rays of the sun fall like shards from its giant golden stupa and you find
yourself amid the motorcade of colonels and generals leaving the Defence
Ministry down the street.
Hymns ring out from St John's Catholic Church across the road but they
drowned by the whistles and jackboots of soldiers piling from armoured
The troops block the road and swiftly clear a path for a convoy of their
Audi 100s. Even the windows are jet black.
Suddenly the monks and parishioners have gone. The street is filled with
nothing but barbed wire and young soldiers wielding snub-nosed Uzi machine
and AK-47 semi-automatics.
Saunter into the leafy suburbs surrounding the downtown area and all
quiet in the lush gardens and villas.
But look closely on some street corners and you will see soliders in
camouflage beneath the frangipani bushes, bayonets glinting.
It is all hard to spot at first. But the locals all know what is out
Chat quietly about the regime to anyone in this gentle, tolerant city and the
reaction is the same. A discrete sideways glance, then a grimace and the make
-believe action of a soldier holding a very large gun.
"It's not just the weapons that people think about now," one local
"Have you seen the size of the bayonets! No one seems to talk about
anymore, just about the guns."
As the new year gets underway after a mysterious Christmas Day bombing of
Rangoon pagoda and the most sweeping student protests since the 1988
many here are wondering if 1997 will see more trouble as some of Rangoon's
contrasts finally converge.
The same contrasts loom within the junta, for to meet with SLORC is an
exercise in the enigmatic.
At its very top level, it remains one of the most secretive and feared
regimes of any in the region, with the United Nations increasingly concerned
human rights abuses such as forced labour and political jailings. Not even
most seasoned Burma -watcher knows for sure how the power is broken up
former military strongman Ne Win, supposedly retired and in ill health, and
current SLORC leadership headed by Senior General Than Shwe and intelligence
boss Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt.
Their views are reflected daily in the New Light of Myanmar, an English
-language mouthpiece that circulates nationwide. By any standards, it is a
propaganda pit-bull of a paper.
Recent issues have devoted whole editions to sweeping conspiracies in
"innocent" students have been manipulated by a cabal comprising Aung San Suu
Kyi's National League for Democracy, die-hard communists and foreign
subversives, such as the Voice of America.
The claims run for page after page next to advertisments for SLORC's
and ready mantras: "The People unite to crush all internal and external
destructive elements and stooges" and "Uplift the morale and morality of the
But one or two levels down in SLORC and you find people disturbingly
to those you meet on the streets of Rangoon - outwardly gentle, keen to talk
At the same time, they insist the guns and the tanks are needed as
precautions" to counter "dangerous chain-reactions".
Phone a senior defence intelligence boss and you get straight through;
is no face-giving run-around or a wall of secretaries.
Talk at length with top officers and it can be hard to divorce the
from the attempted openness. Here, for example, is what Lieutenant-Colonel
Han said in response to questions about the junta's forced labour policies in
"We just want peace. The military is one organ of unity in this country,
to develop and to keep the people happy we must develop the poorer areas,
roads, dams, schools and get them electricity and help them farm.
"The people want this and everyone who works for us is a volunteer. We
no problems getting volunteers.
"No one is paid directly for the work but the village as a whole gets
something, maybe a new school-house or power cables.
"People seem happy with this. They know we have many drawbacks, the
one being a severe lack of earth-moving machinery. This is a big problem and
very important point."
Young Kyaw can vouch for the lack of earth-moving machines. At 14, he is
working in one of the many road gangs you see deep in the countryside and in
He is busting white rocks the size of footballs into smaller pieces. He
given up using a hammer and is slowly lifting and dropping one rock on to the
Three women, faces covered by dust, their clothes in rags, walk silently
if moving in slow motion. They sit, pick up the rocks and place them in ratan
baskets and carry them on their heads to the edge of road. No one speaks.
A soldier lies out of the midday sun under a tree nearby. A floppy green
covers his face and a shiny, smooth stick rests across his stomach.
"He likes to sleep," says Kyaw. "We work slowly and quietly and we never
wake him. He gets us good food and I don't think he wants to hurt us.
"But we know we must work - he is a soldier and we don't want to see him
Kyaw is working near Inle Lake in the wild, mountainous Shan State in
eastern Burma. Much of the state remains off-limits to foreigners as the
mops up after recent peace deals with a trio of ethnic rebel groups,
the forces of heroin warlord Khun Sa.
Kyaw says his village is more than three hours away and he stays in a
dormitory. He has been working six hours a day for more than month, and he
doesn't know for how much longer he will have to work. He says he misses the
laughter of all the people in his village.
"Everyone working here is too tired to talk. There is no fun, and I think
is very hard on the adults."
No one asked him his age, but the army said every family that could
help must do so. He does not know what will be given to his village in return
for his efforts.
Just up the road is one of the big red billboards that dot the landscape:
"Respect the Motherland. Respect the Law." Most of the locals around, it
are not so high-minded, merely seeking a peaceful, simple existence.
The threat of forced labour is a distant fear for many, and daily
are those of the hip-pocket - rice harvest taxes, soaring "under-the-table"
costs for health care and education. They worry about splits in the society
under market reforms, particularly the emergence of elites.
"There is no point to reform if everything is going to cost a lot more
our lives suffer," says one Taungyyi trader.
"Everyone must be better off, not just the sons and daughters of those in
the army and those in army businesses."
Buddhism continues to play a key part in the lives of many farmers and
country folk. Travelling through the countryside, great gilded stupas rise
constantly from the horizon.
In inland Mandalay, Burma's second largest city and a key link between
mountains to the north and east and the lowlands, young monks are closely
watching the society under SLORC. They are ever wary of the strong bond
between top monks and the junta, but gather frequently, and discretely, with
"We are monks. We cannot be interested or involved in politics. That is
clear," one young monk says.
"But we must be concerned always of the suffering of the people. We must
know what is going on among our people. We cannot ignore this." An audience
students gathering over pastries and tea in a Mandalay cafe cheer his words.
Other students talk freely of more trouble ahead, but equally of fears
the security forces based out of sight behind the moat and barricades of the
"Each move has to be very well planned, there are informers everywhere
another student says.
"It has to be said there is a lack of trust among even us now. The SLORC
speaks to everyone, even our parents."
The students admit to being a little cowed, and say while more protests
likely, they will be probably kept to student issues for safety.
"For the time being, we are happy to just have tea together," the student
"There is not much else to do. They have kept our schools closed since
protests." Most express their defiance in quiet ways, wearing boots, black
leather jackets and hair down to their waists. Hard rock anthems from the
blare during every gathering and SLORC has even tried to co-opt some local
to blast out pro-junta songs to compete. But instead the current favourite is
the 1979 hit Dream Police by American band Cheap Trick. You hear it
around the city:
I try to sleep, they're wide awake
They won't let me alone
They don't get paid or take vacations
Or let me alone
In the cafes, the atmosphere is feisty and lively and the mood
Back in Rangoon, however, at the villa of Aung San Suu Kyi on University
leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) admit to a quiet
Some 20 NLD officers have been arrested following the student protests,
many fear long prison sentences despite claims they were not involved.
"Day in and day out, I have to say the last few months have been very
on our organisation," one leader says.
"It's especially tough for those working for us in the countryside. SLORC
are doing everything to break us in so many big and small ways. Many of us
tired but we won't give up. Suu Kyi is everything to this organisation."
He is not even sure of current membership figures and worries that the
pressure is causing internal splits over the best way forward.
The leader is speaking at the site of the first political rally in
held at her house on the anniversary of Independence Day. The date is loaded
with memories of her father Aung San, founder of the army, whose battles for
independence saw him assasinated.
Police barricades block access to both sides of the street, but those
invitations can get through. Inside the villa's gardens it is a communal
atmosphere. Old women are frying
up spring rolls in steaming tureens as former political prisoners chat to the
many people who live in the compound, some too scared to leave.
Suu Kyi has the crowd breaking into thumping applause, calling for "good
government" and a "democratic Burma" , and for a few minutes people seem
liberated from their fears.
Sitting alone afterwards, Suu Kyi says her organisation must continue its
non -violent quest, despite the problems. Pulling constantly on a white
handkerchief, she says SLORC's hard line will ultimately work against it.
"It will be having an impact out there, that is certain," she says.
"But I think there must be a limit to what people can take. They are fed
with being afraid the whole time, of the corruption.
"We will do what we have to do, we are prepared to face the consequences.
They will never win."
GRAPHIC: (Photo: Reuter); On guard . . . Burmese soldiers at an Independence
parade in Rangoon stand in line as they are read a message from General Than
Shwe warning of internal efforts to disturb the nation's peace.
LOAD-DATE: January 26, 1997