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THE NATION: Suharto's fall raises

Editorial & Opinion 

      Suharto's fall raises
      tensions in Rangoon

      ''Suharto's gone,'' a Burmese resident of
      Bangkok shouted down the phone. 

      ''You mean Indonesia's president?'' asked
      his friend in Rangoon, who had been
      completely unaware of what had been
      going on in Indonesia. 

      The government-controlled media in Burma
      has reported none of the tumultuous events
      in Indonesia of the last month. 

      Those who want to follow news of Indonesia
      must listen to foreign broadcasting radio
      stations such as the BBC, RFA and VOA. 

      Are the generals in Rangoon nervous?
      Some analysts in Rangoon say yes. As
      tension heightened in Indonesia troops
      rolled into Rangoon and took up position in
      buildings, houses and hospitals. 

      ''They [the military] are scared,'' said a
      trader in Rangoon. Since students and
      activists took to the streets in Indonesia to
      demand the resignation of Suharto and his
      Cabinet a new business in Rangoon has
      flourished, the selling videotapes of of CNN
      and BBC coverage of Indonesia. In Burma
      only rich and high-ranking officials can
      afford to install satellite dishes. 

      Burmese are keen to know what is going
      on in Indonesia, said Rangoon residents.
      Not surprisingly, politically active students
      are more excited. ''If schools open now we
      will do the same thing as our fellow students
      in Indonesia'', said Soe Myaing (not his real

      But the students are not alone in looking for
      connections with Indonesia. Burma's
      generals also admired the Asean giant's
      political system. It has been a well-known
      fact that the generals wanted to borrow
      Jakarta's New Order system in three areas:
      the 1945 constitution, the dual function of
      the military and the state ideology. 

      In the past Burmese leaders have told their
      Indonesian counterparts they are interested
      in dwinfunsi or dual function. Subsequently
      the military asked for its leading role in
      national politics to be enshrined at the
      National Convention. But now the generals
      in Burma may change their minds. 

      ''Now that Suharto is gone who will be the
      next in the region?'' a Burmese activist
      based in Thailand asked. Indeed things in
      Burma are not going very well. Analysts and
      dissidents warn that social unrest could
      erupt at any time. Foreign businessmen
      who were optimistic and hoping to do
      business in the country have now come to
      the realisation that the authorities have little
      idea of how to run the economy. 

      ''The government has no understanding
      [about the local and international market],
      and we find very few skilled workers. In
      addition it is hard to train them'', a foreign
      businessman said recently. 

      This year local and foreign businessmen
      have not hidden their frustration and

      ''I have been sitting in my office for months
      doing nothing,'' said a local businessman.
      ''We have had no electricity in this town for
      months,'' said a foreign businessman who
      opened an antique shop in Mandalay. He
      has also been waiting to get a telephone
      line for a year. 

      ''It is hopeless: we are leaving,'' he said.
      Many other businessmen, both local and
      foreign, who one praised the regime's
      ''open-market economy'' are now

      About 10 businessmen were briefly
      detained recently. Foreign-exchange
      reserves are quite low. The authorities are
      banning exports and imports. Meanwhile
      the value of the kyat is dropping, with US$1
      now worth 290 kyat on the parallel market,
      although the official rate remains six to the

      Not surprisingly many businessmen are
      suffering, and they are becoming more
      outspoken and critical of the ruling junta's
      economic policies. 

      ''They need to reform,'' one said. 

      The junta, however, continues playing cat
      and mouse with its opponents. Recently
      outspoken politicians and activists have
      been given heavy sentences. Daw San
      San, a senior member of the National
      League for Democracy [NLD], was
      sentenced by the State Peace and
      Development Council (SPDC), as the junta
      is known, to 20 years in prison. She is now
      in her 60s. The reason: Daw San San
      spoke on the telephone to a reporter from
      the BBC. 

      In recent months six former student activists
      have been sentenced to death for allegedly
      conspiring to commit acts of terrorism. A
      total of 38 activists have been accused by
      the junta of being terrorists. Aung San Suu
      Kyi, who remains a virtual prisoner of her
      own home even after her release from
      house arrest a couple of years ago, recently
      remarked: ''As far as I can see there has
      been no improvement at all. In fact I could
      say that I am inclined to think that things
      have even got worse.'' 

      Universities and colleges have been closed
      since 1996. 

      ''The Indonesia crisis has alerted everyone
      in the region to the possibility of new
      student-led unrest. I don't think they are
      going to re-open schools,'' one student

      Despite the fresh crackdown, harsh
      treatment and heavy sentences on
      students, former activists and politicians
      are excited by the news of Suharto. 

      ''They [Burmese generals] followed the
      Indonesia model; we will follow the
      Indonesian students'', Aye Aye in Rangoon

      In the past strong anti-Indonesia and
      anti-Malaysia feelings were held by
      Burmese dissidents as the leaders of the
      two countries became staunch supporters
      of the Burmese junta. 

      In particular many pro-democracy and
      pro-NLD Burmese were upset with
      Indonesia's support of the regime and
      strong business connections between the
      Suharto family and the generals. Suharto
      paid a special private visit to Ne Win's
      residence during his official visit to Burma
      two years ago. In return the aging former
      dictator Ne Win visited Jakarta last year
      and met Suharto. 

      Student leader Moe Thee Zun says: ''We
      feel we are very close. We support the
      movement in Indonesia.'' 

      ''Burma now is like a volcano which can go
      off at any time,'' claimed a dissident turned
      businessman in Rangoon. ''We are
      frustrated with the current political situation
      because it is going nowhere.'' 

      Some dissidents who idle their time away
      in tea shops agreed, saying: ''What we are
      doing everyday is looking for a spark or
      someone who will come to the streets and
      say: 'Let's start.' '' 

      The student-led people-power movement in
      1988 toppled the 26-year-old Ne Win
      regime. Though Ne Win left in disgrace in
      1988, his cronies hung on to power. In the
      past the generals, also known as ''Ne Win's
      sons'', declared that democracy and its
      supporters were common enemies. 

      But recently, senior leaders, including the
      head of the SPDC, have made more
      accommodating speeches. ''There will be
      civilian rule,'' Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw
      told his Bangladesh counterpart during a
      visit there. 

      ''We don't want to hold on to power for
      long,'' senior Gen Than Shwe promised a
      public meeting. PM's Office Minister David
      Abel recently asked the people to be

      Analysts suggested the junta would make
      its response to demands for change
      through the national convention, an
      on-again, off-again process which has
      been postponed numerous times since it
      first convened in 1993. Sources thought the
      junta might resume the national convention
      in the near future. It was boycotted in 1995
      by the NLD. It is widely considered a sham
      convention. The generals wanted to adopt
      an Indonesian-style constitution, but for the
      generals in Burma, Indonesia's current
      events and crisis are lessons to be learned

      ''Things in Burma are never predictable:
      anything can happen,'' a trader warned.
      Rangoon was quiet, but the air was
      pregnant with expectation that something
      might happen soon as dissidents were
      encouraged by the events in Indonesia.
      This no doubt explains the blackout of news
      about Indonesia and the increased
      presence of troops in central Rangoon. 

      Some analysts feel the junta may soon be
      faced with a choice: real reform or another
      outburst of violence that will return the
      country to the days before the 1990
      election. The stubborn generals in Rangoon
      are unlikely to bow to pressure, but this year
      the Rangoon Club is facing tough
      challenges. Growing dissent and social
      unrest are simmering. Sooner or later the
      generals may find it hard to control. 

      BY AUNG ZAW 

      The Nation