[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

burma takes tiny steps of progress


   24/10/97                     Burma takes tiny steps of progress [THE NEW

                        By MARK BAKER

                        ON A CORNER of the busy intersection, a huge billboard
                        proclaims "The People's Desire" in the livid red
shades of old
                        Maoist propaganda. "Crush all internal and external
                        elements as the common enemy," it screams, exhorting the
                        masses to oppose the "stooges holding negative views".

                        A hundred metres away, down the once gracious sweep of
                        Rangoon's University Avenue, the people's real
desire stays
                        hidden from the world, behind the gates from where
she once
                        spoke to thousands of supporters who flocked to her
                        weekend rallies. Steel barriers now block the street
to traffic.
                        Soldiers in camouflage fatigues and flak jackets
stand guard,
                        while military intelligence agents question anyone who

                        Two years after being released from six years under
                        arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi is effectively a prisoner
once more.
                        Her old house beside Inya Lake is under constant
                        Her telephone is tapped and often cut. Visitors must be
                        screened and approved by the authorities. On the
rare occasions
                        she dares venture out, Ms Suu Kyi is tailed by
security men.

                        "We never see her now and we can't go to hear her
speak any
                        more, but we know she is there and we know she is
still fighting
                        for us," says a young student activist who has been
unable to
                        study since universities and colleges were shut down
after a
                        wave of protests last November.

                        In the schizophrenic demonology of the generals who
rule Burma
                        with a hard hand and a humorless heart, Ms Suu Kyi
is at once a
                        dangerous stooge of the nation's foreign enemies and
a naive
                        political irrelevance: "The inexperienced lady." The
truth is the
                        Nobel Peace laureate is neither.

                        A decade after the daughter of General Aung San, the
hero of
                        Burma's independence struggle, came home to nurse
her dying
                        mother and stayed to head a peaceful revolution that
was ended
                        in a bloodbath, she remains the great hope of Burmese
                        democracy and the greatest obstacle to the ambitions
of a
                        corrupt and brutal regime. 

                        Now - more than seven years after the army usurped the
                        landslide election victory of her National League
for Democracy,
                        and a year after she was barred from any public
political activity
                        - Aung San Suu Kyi's stoic resistance is still a
potent force for
                        change. Tentative signs are emerging that her
patient defiance is
                        tilting the power balance in Burma.

                        At the end of last month the league was allowed to
hold its first
                        convention in seven years. An estimated 1300 delegates
                        gathered from around the country and close to 800 were
                        permitted to attend the two-day meeting in the
grounds of Ms
                        Suu Kyi's home. In previous years, hundreds of
league MPs and
                        party workers have been rounded up on the eve of the
                        scheduled congress, detained without charge and
interrogated -
                        some of them still languish in Rangoon's notorious
Insein Prison.

                        In an equally remarkable development, 10 days before the
                        congress, the ruling State Law and Order Restoration
                        invited the league chairman, Aung Shwe, and two
other party
                        officials to a meeting with one of the regime's most
                        figures, the so-called Secretary One,
Lieutenant-General Khin
                        Nyunt. The invitation had been preceded by
exploratory talks in

                        In the end, the league pulled out of the proposed
meeting at the
                        last moment - arguing that the regime's refusal to
include Ms Suu
                        Kyi was an attempt to divide the party. But the
proposing of
                        even a qualified dialogue has been seen by Rangoon-based
                        diplomats and some Burmese political analysts as a
                        move by a regime that has offered only hostility to
its popular
                        adversaries over the past two years - and
particularly since Ms
                        Suu Kyi pulled her delegates out of the sham
convention drafting
                        a new constitution early last year.

                        In another modest hint of progress, the junta last
                        approved a gathering of about 200 league luminaries and
                        supporters at Ms Suu Kyi's house for a "social
event" to mark
                        the end of the Buddhist Lent - albeit after
surrounding the place
                        with almost as many troops and turning away several
                        other guests.

                        "Things are definitely moving. It's a more positive
                        than we've seen for a long time, although people
remain cautious
                        about predicting how far and how fast it will go,"
says one senior

                        Tin Oo, the former Burmese army commander who is now one
                        of Ms Suu Kyi's most trusted deputies, agrees.

                        "I am more optimistic now about the future," he
says. "Some of
                        the senior military officers now see the need for a
                        settlement with the NLD and are trying to move forward."

                        But no one believes that the junta, if it is edging
towards a deal,
                        is doing so for reasons other than sheer necessity.
Two powerful
                        factors are now weighing heavily on the once
intractible regime:
                        a mounting international clamor for reform that is
                        impossible to ignore and the rapid disintegration of
the Burmese

                        As the United States and the European Union
strengthen trade
                        and investment sanctions against Burma, the nine-member
                        Association of South-East Asian Nations - the
neighbors whose
                        approval the regime craves - are quietly stepping up
the pressure
                        for change.

                        Having ignored Western protests and admitted Burma
to the
                        regional grouping three months ago, ASEAN is now
                        the junta to give credibility to its approach of
                        engagement" by opening a dialogue with Ms Suu Kyi.

                        The tougher stance ASEAN has taken against Cambodia
                        the July coup in Phnom Penh appears to have
emboldened its
                        approach to the junta - as well as indications that
the regime's
                        recalcitrance could derail an important new dialogue
with the

                        "The SLORC is definitely feeling the pressure now.
They are
                        starting to get a lot of stick from ASEAN and there
is a growing
                        recogniton that somewhere along the line they are
going to have
                        to compromise," says a senior diplomat. 

                        A potentially more pressing incentive is the
country's deepening
                        economic malaise. Burma continues to teeter on the
verge of
                        bankruptcy with comparisons now being drawn with the
                        economic crisis that helped spark the big democracy
uprising in
                        1988 that catapulted Ms Suu Kyi to political
prominence and
                        was later brutally suppressed, with the loss of at
least 3000 lives.

                        Inflation is soaring with the local currency, the
kyat, worth barely
                        half its black market value a year ago. The trade
deficit is
                        widening and foreign investment is drying up while
                        spending continues to swallow half the national
budget. There
                        are now also fears of widespread famine after recent
                        floods destroyed the rice crop across large areas of
the country.

                        The much-touted - and delayed - Visit Burma Year has
been a
                        monumental flop. Despite predictions of as many as
                        visitors, fewer than 50,000 are estimated to have
turned up.
                        Dozens of new luxury hotels - some built to launder
drug trade
                        profits - are mostly deserted, with occupancy rates
said to be
                        averaging about 20 per cent. Domestic and
international air
                        services have been slashed and two foreign carriers
recently quit
                        their Burma routes.

                        Despite the junta's continued boasts about rising
                        investment, independent sources say there has been a
                        slowdown over the past year as international trade
                        have begun to bite.

                        Despite the hints of political compromise, the junta
is maintaining
                        a public posture of total opposition to any contact
with Ms Suu
                        Kyi, who holds the post of league secretary-general.

                        "The dialogue they are demanding, thinking it to be
                        cannot be cooked up in a pot shared by the
                        the State-run Pauk Sa newspaper said in an editorial
early this

                        While moderates in the regime appear to be in the
                        hardliners implacably opposed to dealing with Ms Suu
Kyi could
                        still block progress. 

                        There is a growing belief among some of the National
                        for Democracy's staunchest supporters that Ms Suu
Kyi now
                        needs to adopt a more conciliatory stance to
encourage the

                        "She is also going to have to start showing some
flexibility," says
                        a Western diplomat. "She keeps pushing without
giving anything
                        and they'll stop being pushed in the end if they
don't feel she is
                        giving something as well."

                        Tin Oo insists the league is ready to compromise,
and that it can
                        allay the fears of many within the junta that a deal
allowing the
                        party back to power would open the way to reprisals
                        senior members of the regime.

                        "We are ready to talk. Aung San Suu Kyi has always
                        that there can be real compromise. We can give and
take, but
                        the most important thing is that we talk and that
those talks
                        include her," he says.

                        The 72-year-old former general, himself imprisoned
for several
                        years for his defence of democracy, remains quietly
                        that the dictatorship can be ended without further

                        "We have struggled for 50 years by force of arms to
try to solve
                        the problems of our country and that approach has
failed," he
                        says. "Now is the time for peace and reconciliation.
The people
                        are fed up and determined to have their rights and