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THE NATION: Suharto's fall raises
- Subject: THE NATION: Suharto's fall raises
- From: suriya@xxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Tue, 26 May 1998 20:18:00
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
''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
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
''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
''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