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THE GENERAL VS. 'THE LADY'
THE GENERAL VS. 'THE LADY'
So much for reconciliation.
In Yangon, no one wants to move forward
By Susan Berfield and Roger Mitton / Yangon
Reporter's Notebook A journalist's adventures
Business What the local tycoons are thinking
MYANMAR IS STUCK. Three years ago the junta freed opposition leader Aung
Kyi from house arrest; since then the positions of the government and the
opposition have become
only more entrenched. Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt, one of the junta's most
important generals, and Suu
Kyi seem unable to find any common ground. Meanwhile, the military
government has managed to
disappoint even the most forgiving businessmen with its unpredictable
economic policies. No one in
a position to do something about any of this seems to know what to do.
Myanmar faces a political
stalemate, an economic reversal of fortune and a leadership gap.
First the political deadlock. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for
Democracy (NLD), was
supposed to take office after decisively winning elections in 1990. That,
of course, did not happen.
The military government that rules instead is supposed to be transitional.
But no one in power shows
any signs of wanting to relinquish it, and few generals can tolerate Suu
Kyi's challenges. When they
decided she had become too provocative, they cracked down. Government
Hla Min explains: "People are getting confused. We are a transitional
government trying to put the
country on the democratic path. We haven't reached that stage yet."
The junta would probably make more progress if it opened a dialogue with
the NLD. But the
generals have said that Suu Kyi cannot take part in such talks. That is not
negotiable. The NLD says
she must be allowed to participate. That is not negotiable. Stalemate. Both
sides insist they are not
setting conditions, but in fact both have insisted on the one thing they
know the other cannot accept.
Can talks be resumed? The junta must make the first move. Hla Min says:
"The door is still open,
but we would like it done the Asian way. The NLD uses the arm-twisting
method. They say: 'We're
going to do this or else.' It makes us more stubborn and will not work." In
April, Suu Kyi described
the situation this way: "There is a great propaganda effort to make us look
inflexible. We have bent
over backwards to show that we are flexible."
Still, there is now a growing belief that neither side really wants
substantive talks - despite their
pretenses. As a Western diplomat in Yangon says: "You can make a very good
case for that." The
regime is content with the status quo, believing that time is on its side
and that Suu Kyi's support is
ebbing. And the NLD is wary of negotiations that might lead to some form of
that would confer legitimacy on the regime. So the party stalls, hoping the
junta gives way because
of infighting or under economic pressure. Neither seem likely anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the junta constantly harasses the NLD. In 1996, Suu Kyi's home
on University Avenue
was blocked off and her weekly speeches to hundreds of people came to an
end. Suu Kyi's party is
still able to hold well-attended daily meetings at its Yangon headquarters
- which would be
impossible in Brunei, Vietnam or Laos - but the military intelligence
maintains a siege-like
atmosphere there. Asked if the regime aims to eliminate the NLD, Hla Min
says: "If we wanted to
destroy them, we could have done it a long time ago. We have been very
tolerant - more than in
other countries with a military government. There, I think, heads would be
It remains a tense and fearful situation for NLD members. Posted by the
entrance to the party
headquarters are long lists of detained supporters. Military men burst out
to photograph and
question visitors. The party's vice chairman, Tin Oo, told Asiaweek: "The
man who rents these
premises to us gets a lot of trouble from the government." Suu Kyi attends
the afternoon meetings
and gives daily speeches to rally her supporters. Her movements in the city
unrestricted; she visits embassies, attends receptions and earlier this
month showed up at the
Shwedagon Pagoda, where she launched the democracy movement a decade ago.
But Suu Kyi cannot venture outside the capital. When she tried to meet
supporters in the provinces
a few months ago, she was stopped by the military. Twice, she refused to
turn back and endured
lengthy car sit-ins that captured world headlines. During the second of
these ordeals, NLD
Chairman Aung Shwe decided to accept an invitation to speak with Khin
Nyunt. At their meeting,
Khin Nyunt agreed to consider releasing detained NLD members. Says a
diplomat: "If that had
been accepted, the dialogue could have moved forward." It never did because
the NLD then
announced it would convene a parliament (no assembly meets because the
junta is supposedly
drawing up a new Constitution). Suu Kyi said in July: "We are not provoking
any sort of
confrontation. We are only asking for what is due, not to the NLD, but to
the people of Burma."
Nonetheless, the NLD's decision, says the diplomat, "cut the legs from
under Khin Nyunt, and the
hardliners told him: That's it."
A round-up of the NLD ensued: More than 700 members have since been obliged
to remain at
government guest houses until they acknowledge the validity of the junta's
position. About 95 have
done so and have been released. In September, Khin Nyunt said the nation
should be "alert to the
danger posed by aliens who are integrating in our internal affairs" using
local "lackeys." (Suu Kyi is
married to a British academic.)
A month later, the regime gave the entire Yangon diplomatic corps an
unprecedented briefing. They
brought out maps, documents, photographs and money transfer receipts to
show that Suu Kyi and
her cohorts had allegedly been conspiring with foreign forces - including
nongovernment organizations and even George Soros - to bring down the
At the same time, the domestic media stepped up their attacks on Suu Kyi.
The papers regularly
carry cartoons depicting her as a black-toothed witch manipulated by
foreigners seeking to harm the
interests of the Myanmar people. There are dozens of stories about rallies
around the country where
civil servants criticize NLD leaders in front of huge crowds. In the most
recent, some 20,000 people
supposedly called on the government to deport Suu Kyi. It is unlikely these
staged events are very
convincing. "People are bussed in to hear these dirges," says a diplomat.
"They are angry at being
forced to attend."
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THE GENERAL VS. 'THE LADY'
NONETHELESS, THE PARTY'S IMPACT has been lessened. Aside from the
ever-resilient Suu Kyi, other leaders have either opted out or caved in.
There appears to be no one
else of substance among the party hierarchy. Former leader Kyi Maung told
Asiaweek he has
decided "not to make comments on political developments." He adds: "I have
been on furlough for
quite some time." Party Chairman Aung Shwe and Vice Chairman Tin Oo say
little, and do even
less, without Suu Kyi's approval.
"It is hard to know where the NLD goes from here," says one diplomat.
Indeed, many wonder just
what Suu Kyi's strategy is. The government does not allow foreign
journalists to speak to her these
days - and no one else in the party will speak for her. Does the NLD hope
the military will split and
the regime crumble? The apparent rift between the pragmatic Khin Nyunt and
army boss Gen. Maung Aye may be just as staged as the anti-NLD rallies.
Many see them playing a
rather canny good cop-bad cop routine. Besides, says cabinet minister B.G.
Maung Maung: "They
deal with problems together. Maung Aye is a military man and Khin Nyunt is
a politician who looks
after the development of the country." Still, those who know both leaders
confirm that they are not
"the best of buddies" and, since they keep to themselves, no one can be
really sure if they are
working together or at cross-purposes.
Does the NLD hope the economy self-destructs and the people rise up? Most
that as highly unlikely. Says a diplomat: "I don't sense it. Maybe in the
future, but there is no sign
right now." Certainly the economic problems are real enough though. Says a
banker: "Since the end
of 1995, the government has not made a single decision on the economy.
Things have come to a
standstill, just when so many important things need to be decided." The
impact of this inaction is
only now being felt and, of course, the Crisis is exacerbating the
situation. But the ministers insist the
country is doing well and that they enjoy popular support. "The overall
economic indicators are up
over last year," says National Planning Minister Soe Tha.
Still, inflation is rising, property prices are diving, businesses are
closing, foreign investors are
leaving, hotels are mothballing floors, and the national airline is in
danger of folding. One diplomat
said that authorities were even having trouble feeding the remaining NLD
detainees and were forcing
restaurant owners to supply them with food. But perhaps the most obvious
manifestation of the
troubled economy is the fact that electricity is no longer something to be
taken for granted in urban
areas, never mind rural ones. Except for privileged enclaves, the entire
capital is subject to power
rationing. Mandalay is worse - lengthy power outages occur daily. The
shortage has led to public
frustration and a decline in industrial output. Suu Kyi said in July: "The
economic situation is very
bad and the education system is very bad. Health care is poor. So what do
we have left?"
What keeps the country going is the so-called unofficial economy: the
border trade with China, Thailand and India. (Timber, legumes and gems go
appliances and consumer goods come in.) At the same time, and despite Suu
Kyi's calls for a
boycott, tourists are beginning to drift back. And the rice harvest is
better than last year's; some
50,000 tons will be exported. But no one knows how long all of this can
keep the economy from
failing and the junta in power.
So where does that leave things? Says a diplomat: "It's hard to see where
change will come from."
The U.N. special envoy to Myanmar, Alvaro de Soto, arrived in the capital
Oct. 27. Most
considered this a positive sign since an earlier trip had been canceled at
the junta's request. De Soto
was supposed to meet with Suu Kyi. Meanwhile, leading diplomats in Yangon
have submitted a
"reform initiative" to both sides to try to break the deadlock. But there
is little real optimism. Says
one of the proposal's architects: "It has become a matter of personalities.
Issues, policies, the
national interest, the good of the Myanmar people, they are secondary. For
the leaders on both
sides it is personalities now, me against them. No surrender." A deep and
often bitter cynicism has
taken over in Myanmar.
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