Two years ago, Burma was in ferment, setting the pace for later pro-democracy movements around the world with a wave of mass demonstrations that brought its oppressive government to the brink of collapse. The unrest began at the universities, but after government troops killed hundreds of students in March, 1988, protests against 26 years of dictatorial rule spread to the wider population. Then, in August and September, 1988, the regime cracked down definitively, killing an estimated 3,000 people when soldiers and police opened fire on demonstrators in Rangoon, the capital, and other major cities.
In the repression that followed, the government arrested thousands of people and tortured or summarily executed unknown numbers of them. Thousands more fled to the jungle. But similar upheavals in neighboring China in 1989, culminating in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre, drew the world’s attention away from Burma. Now, despite the first
nationwide elections in 30 years, scheduled for May 27, many citizens say that all that has really changed is the country’s name: it is no longer Burma, but “Myanmar.”
To many of the isolated nation’s 40 million people, the upcoming election of an assembly that will frame a new constitution appears to be biased in the government’s
favor. Scores of opposition guu g - nQ candidates and party workers are under arrest. Rangoon, renamed Yangon, and other major cities are under a 10 p.m.-to-4 a.m. curfew, the universities remain closed, and the country is sealed off to journalists and others with an interest in observing the balloting. Said a recent report by the Washington-based human rights organization Asia Watch: “Despite promises that these elections will be
‘free and fair,’ members of Myanmar’s ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council are taking no chances that any opposition candidate with genuine popular support will have a chance of winning. Most, in fact, will have no chance even of running.”
The law and order council, known by the Burmese acronym SLORC, took control of the country in the troubled fall of 1988. Its official leader is former army chief of staff Gen. Saw Maung, 60. But many diplomats and human rights workers speculate that longtime dictator Gen. Ne Win, 79, is still in charge, despite his formal retirement two years ago. SLORC has tried to defuse minority demands for greater representation, but that strategy has clearly failed: there has been no letup in the long-running guerrilla war waged by ethnic rebels along the country’s east-
_ em border with Thailand.
SLORC’s repressive measures have failed to subdue the colorful diversity of the country and its people. Amid Myanmar’s stunning natural and architectural beauty, the mountains and dense forests, the thousands of pagodas and giant Buddhas, a visitor can easily remain ignorant of
1 seething discontent. In the £ cities, among the palm read| ers, astrologers, snake-oil o salesmen and other mer2 chants of miracle cures, life
seems to proceed according to its own eccentric brand of normality. But the people are plainly afraid to talk to foreigners. Anyone seen doing so by the ubiquitous secret police is likely to be interrogated or arrested. Said one Western diplomat, who requested anonymity: “This place is a kind of fascist Disneyland.”
One highly visible sign of SLORC’s omnipresence are the hundreds of billboards erected in conspicuous public places, bearing slogans in fire-engine red. “Only when there is discipline will there be progress,” reads one 20-foot placard in front of the capital’s Bandoola Park. “Crush all destructive elements,” urges another, at the entrance to the Schwemawdaw Pagoda, which enshrines two sacred hairs supposedly plucked from the head of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian philosopher and founder of the Buddhist religion in the 6th century BC.
In SLORC’s view, those “destructive elements” include 44-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the charismatic daughter of Gen. Aung San, the so-called father of the nation who led Burma to independence from the British in 1947. Although she is general secretary of the lawful main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, she is disqualified from campaigning for election because of alleged links to underground organizations, and she has been under house arrest since last July. SLORC has put up one of its billboards just in front of her home in the capital: “Anyone who becomes riotous, destructive or unruly is our enemy.”
Also under house arrest and forbidden to stand for election is U Nu, 83, Burma’s last democratically elected prime minister, who held that post from 1948 to 1962. Tin Oo, 66year-old chairman of the National League for Democracy, is serving three years at hard labor for alleged sedition. And, according to Asia Watch, scores of lesser-known opposition candidates and party workers have been arrested in the past two months.
Meanwhile, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly make campaigning all but impossible. Martial law regulations ban gatherings of more than five people in the street and of more than 50 people indoors. Also illegal are congregating, marching in procession or chanting slogans. Speeches, articles or pamphlets that, according to the government, “impair the country’s independence, sovereignty and integrity” or “denigrate or impair the dignity” of SLORC are also outlawed. Said a Western diplomat in Yangon: “There’s not a chance in hell that the elections will change anything.”
In clandestine conversations, numerous Burmese claimed that, if there were a free vote, Suu Kyi would be the people’s overwhelming choice. Her policies are not entirely clear. But her magnetic personality and her famous father have helped to give her name the kind of resonance that Corazon Aquino’s had in the Philippines before she came to power in 1986. “She is like a goddess,” said one prominent resident of Yangon. “Her name'is magic.”
With Oxford-educated Suu Kyi and the other
major opposition candidates disqualified, and others running under crippling handicaps, the election’s outcome is not in doubt: SLORC will win. Officially, there are 93 parties involved, fielding a total of 2,233 candidates and contesting 486 seats. The government’s National Unity Party is contesting all 486 seats. Suu Kyi’s National League is running 450 candidates, and U Nu’s League for Democracy and Peace is fielding 325. But SLORC has refused to allow entry to international observers who sought to monitor the voting. And on May 14, it barred not only foreign reporters but all tourists for an indefinite period.
In the wake of the 1988 government crackdown, thousands of students and dissenting
civil servants fled from the cities to the Thai border region, where they joined forces with the Karen and other rebel tribes who are fighting for regional autonomy. Before the foreign-media ban was imposed, a Maclean’s correspondent found grim conditions among students encamped with Karen National Liberation Army forces along the border. The youths were sleeping in ramshackle barracks without mosquito netting, and almost all appeared to be suffering from malaria. Food, medicine and weapons were in short supply. The camp residents passed their days in stultifying boredom. At the Sawtha Camp, on the Salween River, teenagers in ragged, sunbleached clothes were undergoing weapons training, using bamboo sticks for guns. Socalled political education classes seemed to involve little more than the shouting of slogans.
Most of those interviewed said that they had fled to the border because they had taken part in anti-government demonstrations and feared for their lives. A third-year English student named Aung Naing Oo, from Yangon University, like most of his comrades said that his parents did not know where he was. “I sent a message before I left that I was going under-
ground,” he said. He went into the jungle, he added, believing that the United States would send weapons to help him and his fellow students fight “for democracy.” Asked what he meant by democracy, he replied, “We don’t know exactly what it is, but we are learning.” In recent months, a Burmese army offensive has driven thousands of Karen rebels and their student guests across the border into Thailand, where they are in clear danger of being arrested and sent back by the Thai army. The Thais are apparently unwilling to grant refuge to the Burmese because they already have a major refugee problem on their eastern border with Cambodia, and because they do not want to jeopardize trade relations with Myanmar.
Independent analysts claim that the outnumbered and outgunned ethnic rebels have no chance of achieving their objectives. And Washington is unwilling to provide support. Said Thomas Reich, a Myanmar desk officer at the state department: “We don’t want to get involved in an internal Burmese dispute.” Meanwhile, the Japanese and Thais are providing significant aid and investment to support the government.
As a result, the regime appears to be in no immediate danger—unless anger and frustration over the election arrangements boil over into another wave of popular revolt. If that happens, army officers would face the same dilemma that they confronted two years ago: whether to massacre fellow countrymen or to drive out Ne Win and allow a measure of genuine democracy. The death or serious illness of the aged dictator might also lead to dramatic changes. But, by all accounts, the powerful Ne Win continues to enjoy robust good health, and Burma, or Myanmar, remains a colorful but claustrophobic police state.
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