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Nation : If not a handshake, what?

The Nation
July 23,1998
Editorial & Opinion 

If not a handshake, what?

As tension rises in Rangoon amidst a deteriorating economy, the junta seems
to be taking the opposition head-on. Aung Zaw reports on the demands for
change and the stubbornness of the generals. 

Burma's authorities again stopped pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi
from travelling to Pantanaw township, 75 km from Rangoon. 

This was the second trip by the Nobel Peace prize winner this month. 

Rangoon authorities who put Suu Kyi under house arrest for almost six years
accused her of disturbing stability and tranquility by adopting a
confrontational stance. 

But it seems despite threats and harassment, leaders of the National League
for Democracy (NLD) are making more planned trips inside and outside of

Since last month, the political heat in Rangoon has been rising again. In
May of this year Suu Kyi urged the ruling junta known as the State Peace
and Development Council (SPDC) to convene parliament saying the junta must
recognise her party's victory in the 1990 general elections. 

In June the NLD laid down a 60-day deadline. It sent a letter to the
chairman of the ruling junta asking to convene parliament before Aug 21.
The NLD's demand was backed by leaders from the Shan, Mon, Chin and Arakan

The junta's refusal to implement the results of the elections remains as a
black mark in the history of Burma, the ethnic leaders said in a statement.

''To erase that black mark,'' the statement said, ''there is no other way
but to implement the results of the elections and to convene parliament.'' 

Shortly after setting the deadline, Suu Kyi and NLD chairman Aung Shwe went
to Min Hla township to meet supporters. Not surprisingly, their car was
blocked and the NLD leaders remained by the roadside overnight in a
stand-off with security forces before a local supporter was brought to see
her. Though Suu Kyi was freed from her house arrest in 1995, she wasn't
allowed to travel outside the capital. 

Burma watchers believe that the NLD's recent movements surprised the
military leaders who refused to sit down with Suu Kyi. ''This is a fresh
political offensive and a clever move,'' said a veteran journalist in
Rangoon. ''The centre is now in the NLD'', he said. But he acknowledged the
fact that the ball is still in the SPDC court. ''They have several options
to counter NLD's activities,'' he said. 

The junta's response was neither new nor positive. The demand for dialogue
with the junta is ''black magic'' and the work of the ''superpower
colonialists bloc'', the official media responded. The junta sent troops to
the cities while saying there is no room for talks. 

At the same time, the junta warned of a possible head-on collision. The
state-run newspapers are filled with anti-Suu Kyi articles. In addition, it
stepped up the crackdown and harassment of the NLD MPs and supporters
throughout the country. The SPDC required all NLD MPs to register in the
mornings and afternoons. 

''Those who refused to sign such pledges are arbitrarily put in prison
while those who are forced to sign such pledges are obliged to report to
township authorities twice a day,'' the opposition group said. 

The NLD said that as many as 80 of its members had been detained after
refusing to sign pledges that restrict their travel. 

''What they are doing is clipping the wings of the bird without intending
to kill the bird,'' said a diplomat in Bangkok. 

The SPDC later threatened to take legal action against the NLD and Suu Kyi.
It said people can no longer tolerate the acts of Suu Kyi who has ignored
the interests of the nation and people. 

''The irony is that people hate the current government and it is less and
less popular, so this is just a joke in Rangoon,'' said a merchant who is
closely monitoring the current political deadlock in Rangoon. 

In Thailand, Burma watchers and opponents are watching Burma carefully.
''The country is edging toward total disaster,'' laments a senior Karen
leader. Food shortages, starvation and chaos are impending dangers for
Burma, the opponents say. 

Burma's political situation has always been closely linked to the fate of
its economy which is deteriorating seriously. The generals concede that the
call for change is rising among local and foreign businessmen. Ordinary
people and government servants complain about corruption, nepotism, low
wages and inflation. 

''Under the banner of an open market economy, the military and their
families monopolise everything,'' said activist Ko Ko Naing who came to
Bangkok recently. Thus political analysts and exiled dissidents believe
that the situation inside Burma can explode soon unless the junta makes
wide-ranging changes including negotiating with the NLD. 

Ko Ko Naing said the Burmese people support Suu Kyi's call for a
parliament. ''People are so excited to see positive changes taking place in
Burma,'' he said. But Burma's road to democracy will take time. Some
Rangoon-based dissidents rather want to see rapid and dramatic changes. 

''We have been under this repressive regime for so long now and we want
them to step down,'' said an activist. They are asking Suu Kyi to go to the
City Hall in Rangoon instead of going outside of Rangoon. 

''Thousands will turn up within seconds if she goes there,'' said Hla Min,
not his real name. Ko Ko Naing said the Burmese are frustrated with the
junta but, ''we are just scared because they have guns. We know that we are
all hostages in our own country except for the military leaders and their

Given the current impasse and unpredictable future, some veteran
politicians in Rangoon fear that street violence and chaos may take place
in the near future. But there are ways to avoid a repeat of the bloodshed
in 1988 and the incidences in Jakarta's streets in May. Opposition groups
say dialogue is the best way to solve all long-standing problems in Burma. 

While the generals are inflexible and intransigent, it seems Suu Kyi is
willing to tango with the junta, though the generals are unwilling to get
on the dance floor. In her recent interview with Bangkok-based NGO
Alternative Asean (Altsean), Suu Kyi said the NLD is open to suggestions
and flexible. ''We have always said that we don't want a zero-sum

Since her release in 1995, many people have kept their fingers crossed,
hoping to see a historical handshake like the one that took place between
the antagonists in the Middle East and South Africa. But so far, Suu Kyi
has found no Burmese De Klerk. Recently, the junta angrily said Suu Kyi is
not Burma's Mandela. 

So the question now is: What else, if not a handshake?