FEER: Backdown or bloodbath View PDF

Far Eastern Economic Review, 22 Sept. 1988.

Backdown or bloodbath

Renewed confrontation as opposition rejects election offer by Bertil Lintner in Bangkok

After weeks anti-government protests, the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) appeared to have made a major concession to demonstrators. In a radio speech to the nation on 10 September, BSPP chairman and state President Maung Maung announced that an extraordinary party congress had passed a resolution to hold multiparty general elections without first conducting a referendum on the issue, as he had previously proposed.

The following day, Burma's parliament endorsed the proposal and declared that free elections, under the supervision of a specially appointed five-member commission, would be held within three months.

Opposition leaders immediately rejected the concession, saying they would not participate in such elections. They vowed to continue their demonstrations. "We can never accept elections organised by this regime and held within the framework of just an amended version of the present constitution," an opposition figure told the REVIEW. He added: "The BSPP regime must resign first and give way to a popular, interim government which can organise free elections."

Another objection to the BSPP proposal was that with elections being held so soon, the opposition would have no time to organise political parties. In addition, oppositionists argued that the proposed election commission, though composed of respected, independent personalities, would not be able to ensure the fairness of any election --especially in the countryside.

Also, large parts of Burma, in particular Kachin and Shan States, are controlled by rebel ethnic minority groups seeking autonomy with a Burmese federation. Some accord with these groups would have to be reached before nationwide elections could be held.

Within a day of Maung Maung's announcement, an estimated 350,000 demonstrators returned to the streets of Rangoon, demanding the president's immediate resignation and the formation of an interim government acceptable to the public. The opposition suspected that the BSPP government's proposal was little more than a ploy to gain time and rebuild its rapidly declining reputation abroad. There were also charges that the government hoped to split the opposition over the election issue into "hardliners" and "moderates."

Maung Maung's announcement seemed linked to an unexpected move by elder statesmand and former preminister U Nu who, on 8 September, said he had set up an interim government and who called for a general election to be held on 9 October. Although the move was severely criticised by other opposition leaders, who said U Nu had not consulted them prior to his announcement, it may have prompted the ruling party to act sooner than expected. The extraordinary BSPP congress, originally scheduled for 12 September, was held three days earlier than planned and, in the even, Maung Maung apparently felt it necessary to abandon his earlier demand for a referendum on multiparty elections.

U Nu's announcement also triggered a shift in loyalty -- away from the government to the opposition -- among some elements of the military. Hundreds of air force men from Mingladon Maintenance Air Base joined the street demonstrations along with some navy personnel, a small number of infantry soldiers and workers from the defence industry. For the first time, there were confirmed incidents of desertions.

The official reaction to the desertions and the continued demands for Maung Maung and his BSPP to resign was renewed threats. Arguing that "law and order are necessities if we are to hold free elections," Maung Maung in a second speech on 11 September said the public had to vacate government buildings they had previously occupied.

"It will be necessary for the councils, public service personnel and police to bring back into motion the public administrative machinery which has been stalled and is in ruins." he said. "The authorities concerned have already issued instructions for the nearest defence forces units to render assistance as well."

The president's move added weight to the charge that the government's general-election proposal was designed to gain time to shore up its power, largely lost at the local level after an 8-12 August uprising when citizens' groups took over civil administration in most parts of the country.

In a related development, army units in Rangoon began hauling away food and other daily necessities from the city. As a result, prices have skyrocketed, and Rangoon sources said an acute food crisis would occur in the capital within a few days. "They are trying to starve us out," one said. The government's carrot-and-stick approach towards the opposition was reflected in Maung Maung's 11 September speech. "Run ... those of you who resort to force and those of you possessed by the devil, while there is still time," he warned.

On 12 September, army chief of staff Gen. Saw Maung issued a similar threat to demonstrators and, in the countryside where the government is facing smaller numbers of protesters than in the capital, an army counter-offensive has already begun. Administrative centres set up by local opposition groups were attacked recently by the army and police in the area between Moulmein and Ye in Mon State. Several opposition leaders there have been killed. Unusual movement of government troops have also been reported from the border towns of Tachilek and Myawadi, near Thailand.

Fears have been expressed that the army is gearing up for a major showdown, possibly a bloodbath. In preparation for such a confrontation, opposition leaders for the first time appear to be coordinating their activities.

On 12 September, three of Burma's most prominent opposition figures -- Aung San Suu Kyi, Tin U and Aung Gyi -- signed a joing letter to Maung Maung demanding the formation of an interim government. Student demonstrators, who spearheaded the pro-democracy movement, are consolidating their various organisations. Several of their leaders are maintaning lower profiles than before anti-government demonstrations become more militant.

"The slogan now is 'give us democracy now or we'll fight'"". a Burmese source said, suggesting that many young people in Burma are prepared to use violence to over throw the government if it does not resign voluntarily.

Meanwhile, foreign governments are beginning to react to the deteriorating situation in Burma. West Germany, which has been a major aid donor to Burma, suspended all assistance on 31 August on the grounds that basic human rights were being violated by the BSPP regime. West Germany has been giving Burma about Dm 65 million (USD 35.14 million) annually, which was split up into Dm 15 million in technical grants and the remaining Dm 50 million for capital-goods imports.

Although Japan has not yet made a formal decision, it has suspended aid to Rangoon "until Burma attains liberty and democracy." Official assistance from Tokyo has ranged between Y40-50 billion (USD300-375 million) annually in recent years. This year Japan's only economic aid to the country was a dept-relief loan of Y3.6 billion. In the US Senate, Sen. Daniel Moynihan said in a 9 September statement that the US should suspend aid "until a democratic government is restored in Burma and at such time, we should commit ourselves to provide much greater assistance to these valiant people and their beautiful land."

Coming out of limbo the opposition finds its voices

The present movement for democracy in Burma is frequently compared with the "people's power" uprising in the Philippines which toppled resident Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986. Both, afterall, were broad-based uprisings against unpopular rulers where the people themselves played the most important role.

There are, however, many differences. In the Philippines, there was a high degree of foreign press freedom and the opposition operated relatively openly. In Burma, however, the foreign press is officially not allowed into the country to cover the present events. More important, there was no recognisable opposition.

When the movement for democracy in Burma first began in March. It was a genuinely sponeous, leaderless manifestation of 26 years of pent-up frustration which suddenly exploded with a vehemence that took most observers by surprise.

By June, the opposition had built an efficient underground infrastructure but it was not until the massive 8 August uprising and the subsequent mass killings of unarmed demonstrators in Rangoon and elsewhere that identifiable leaders emerged. But even the, the became leaders not because of their mass following, but because they thought that the crisis needed political guidance and a sense of direction.

Almost simultaneously, several prominent Burmese figures began making public speeches and attending mass rallies where they offered differing soliutions to the country's predicament.

Today, Burma's democratic movement has five main leaders. Although they are united in their opposition against the present regime, they represent different traditions and trends in Burmese society:

Aung San Suu Kyi, 43, appears to be the most popular, partly because of her famous father, the independence hero Aung San. Her husband, Michel Aris, is a renowned British Tibetologist at Oxford University. The students especially like her, though she is married to a foreigner and has spent many years abroad. She is the type of leader they have always wanted: bright, well-educated and untainted by connection with any of the previous regimes or political parties.

Partly because of her popularity, jealous rivals have accused her of being "a tool of British imperialism," or have claimed that she is being influenced by "communist advisers." Both charges seem unlikely.

Tin U, 61, is a former general who served as chief of staff and defence minister until he was dismissed by Ne Win on 6 March 1976. Later in the same year, he was implicated in an abortive coup attempt and spent four years in jail. Following his release in 1980 amnesty, he earned a degree in law and privately picked up his interest in politics. He is now known as a fiery and articulate orator and is possibly the second most popular opposition leader after Aung San Suu Kyi.

Tin U's following mainly comprises young people and army veterans throughout the country. He belongs to a younger generation of post-independence army officers and has a brilliant fighting record, stemming from his role in the military campaigns of the 1950s against remnants of the Chinese nationalist Kuomingtang army which had fled to Burma's Shan state following their defeat by the communists in China in 1949.

Some students are suspicious of him because of his military background, while other Burmese argue that his army contacts are crucial for the success of the current popular uprising.

Aung Gyi, 70, hails from a Sino-Burmese family in Paungde, south of Prome. He belong to a slightly older generation of World War II veterans who later entered politics. Many of these army officers had leftist leanings. Ideologically, however, he was probably more of a social democrat of the West European model than a radical Marxist (Review, 28 July).

Aung Gyi to a large extent spearheaded the present movement for democracy by writing and widely distributing a number of open letters to Ne Win -- for which he was imprisoned on 30 July. Following his release on 25 August, he as attended mass rallies, but he surprised his audience when he expressed his confidence in the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) leader Maung Maung as well as the army, only a little more than a week after the massacre in Rangoon. Even so, his participation in, or suport for, an interim government is seen as vital for the stability of any future administration.

U Nu, 81, is one of Burma's most prominent political veterans. He served as prime minister throughout most of the country's post-independence democratic period from 1948 until Ne Win's takeover in 1962 after which he spent some time in prison. In 1969, he left the country and spent the next 11 years in exile, returning to Burma under the 1980 amnesty. After that, he devoted his life to translating Buddhist scriptures, but re-emerged as a political leader in the wake of the August uprising.

He is popular with older Burmese but the younger generation is less enthusiastic about the prospect of one of the old politicians returning to power. His independent -- and ignored -- declaration of a provisional government on 8 September also has damaged his reputation.

Min Ko Naing, 26, represents a completely new phenomenon in Burmese politics: a young, dynamic leader. Before the first wave of anti-government protests in March, he was an ordinary zoology student in Rangoon. But when he observed at close hand the brutal suppression of the March riots, his anger with the BSPP regime grew. Before long, he became one of the most important leaders of the student underground that began taking shape in May.

Today, he has become almost a national hero and many observers predict that he will play a leading role in future Burmese politics. Min Ko Naing and his fellow students appear to find it easier to cooperate with Aung San Suu Kyi, who also represents a new generation of leaders in Burma, than with any of the other opposition figures.

The process of bringing all five dissident leaders under one umbrella has just begun. Given their diverse political and personal backgrounds as well as power bases, this may not be an easy task. Never the less, observers see unity among them as crucial for the success of Burma's democratic revolution.

Purges and spies make army Ne Win's hardest asset

Given the speed with which the old power structure of the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) has crumbled, it is surprising that the regime is still in power, even if it is rapidly becoming an empty shell.

Today, the BSPP government comprises powerless ministers, who do not been occupy their offices, backed by the state-run Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS), the only medium still loyal to the old order, and the bulk of the armed forces. Just about everybody else takes to the streets daily to demonstrate against what is left of the government. Even so, the BSPP still forms the official government and enjoys international recognition.

The reason for this paradoxial situation is simple: as long as at least a major part of the armed forces continues to protect the ministers and occupy the premises of the BBS -- and, at gun point, force its announcers to broadcast the BSPP's view -- the party leadership can still claim that it is the legitimate government of Burma.

The continuing loyalty of the 180,000-strong armed forces has surprised many foreign observers. A small, top stratum of high-ranking officers loyal to the regime exerts control through a mixture of special privileges and punishments, a Burmese tradition of loyalty to authority and a intricate network of informers at every level. A system of frequent transfers of local commanders has also prevented factionalism from emerging with the ranks.

Even if Maung Maung is officially the country's president and Tun Tin the prime minister, they are seen as little more than figureheads for a coterie of hardline military leaders, without whose consent the government can take no political initiatives.

On the top of this narrow command structure remains the old strongman Ne Win, who retired as BSPP chairman on 25 July. Few Burmese doubt that he still is pulling the strings from behind the scenes, together with his favourite daughter, Sanda Win, an army major who resembles her father in appearance, speech and manners.

Ne Win's right hand man is Sein Lwin, who officially succeeded the old strongman in July and resigned on 12 August after the massacre of anti-government protesters in Rangoon. When Sein Lwin's iron-fist approach failed, the ostensibly more acceptable Maung Maung, a civilian, was pushed into the limelight. But that move also appears to have backfired, with the vast majority of Burmese well aware of where real power resides. Few Burmese believe either Ne Win or Sein Lwin has departef from the scene.

Next in the pecking order is armed forces chief of staff and Defence Minister Gen. Saw Maung. He lacks the intellectual gifts of most of his predecessors in the post and, therefore, is seen as easily manipulated by the two top leaders. However, the orders which Saw Maung receives from above are usually executed by his deputy, Lieut-Gen Than Shwe, a ruthless field commander who is more feared than respected by his subordinates.

Sein Lwin, Saw Maung and Than Shwe represent the class of military officers which has remained immensely loyal to Ne Win. Thousands of more professional former army officers were purged from the services and remain on the outer, many now rallying behind opposition leader Aung Gyi or Tin U. In the field, commanders of the army's nine military regions, who are all brigadier-generals, have close personal and financial ties with the top army-cum-party leadership and remain loyal to the present regime.

The only way in which this last, powerful bastion of BSPP support can be overcome is if it crumbles from within, not if any of the top commanders defect.

That process has now begun with desertion of privates, and non-commissioned officers. A rapidly shrinking power base within the army might convince the top four military leaders that the only way out for them is to leave the country. Nothing short of that seems likely to topple the regime and usher in a new era.


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