Asiaweek, 4 January 1991

Road to manerplaw

Manerplaw is virtually impregnable. Home to the guerilla headquarters of Burma's ethnic Karen rebels, the town is hedged to the west by at least 40 kilometers of triple canopy jungle. To the east flows the muddy Moei River, which borders Thailand. So when hundreds of Karen soldiers, armed to the teeth with grenades and machine guns, spread out on patrol on Dec. 18, locals knew something was afoot. Some feared that Rangoon's army was planning to bomb the town using newly purchased Chinese F-7 aircraft. Others believed taht Rangoon was ready to launch an attack with crack jungle-trained troops. All the rumours came to naught.

Instead, shortly after 9 a.m. in a roughly when conference hall, eight National League for Democracy MPs elected in Burma's May 27 (1990) pools heard their new "prime minister" proclaim a provisional government. Opposition leader Sein Win's announcement defied the military-led State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which has refused to hand over power despite the NLD's landslide election victory. With Sein Win when he declared the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) were karen Gen. Bo Myan and Kachin chairman Brang Seng. As a leader of the two strongest ethnic groups fighting Rangoon, the pair brought considerable clout to Sein Win's announcement.

In a speech on the Manerplaw parade ground, Sein Win said the provisional government "is the only option for us because this junta has no will and no way to transfer power to the people. The only option for the representatives elected by the vast majority of people to escape into liberated areas and form a government for the people." The aims of his government: to eliminate SLORC; call national convention with all elected officials and minority group representatives; and establish a democratic government in Burma.

To lure the minorities into the fold, the provisional government agreed to form the Democratic Front of Burma. It embraces Sein Win's cabinet and the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB), an umbrella group of 21 minority, religious, student and expatriate factions. "The DAB could not be included in the newly declared government, which was to be made up only of elected officials," says Karen National Union foreign minister Em Marta. A "Supreme Council" of seven Alliance representatives and five League MPs was chosen to decide government policy. Em Marta says Sein Win's cabinet also agreed to share power with the Alliance if the government was ever formally recognised.

But most foreign observers think that is unlikely. Rangoon-based diplomats believe the government-in-exile will be short-lived, and that its formation will trigger a wave or arrests and cripple the League. "The [new government] won't make any differnce any which way," says one foreign analyst. "The SLORC has intimidated everybody."

Commented one Bangkok-based Western diplomat: "Even if you are sympathetic and have an open mind, they (the Manerplaw MPS) are starting from a bleak position. They'll have to be able to demonstrate support in Burma. Otherwise people will start calling the NCGUB a joke, and a bad joke at that."

Their fear may be well-founded. On the day the new government was announced, teh League's Central Executive Committee in Rangoon expelled the eight MPs in the fledgling cabinet. A veteran Burmese activist in Bangkok says "the [League's] reaction was calculated. They had to save their necks and denounce the alternative government to avoid being deregistered by the military." The junta has ruthlessly jailed hundreds of opponents. All but a handful of the League's top leaders are under house arrest or behind bars. Rangoon recently revoked the registration of Sein Win's Party for National Democracy. The regime is now going after a score of MPs planning to join their coleagues in Manerplaw.

Still, the provisional government cannot be ignored. Its link-up with Burma's minorities was unprecedented and symbolically significant. It was the first time since Gen. Ne Win grabbed power in 1962 that elected Burmese officials had joined hands with the minorities to oppose the military and support a federal union giving minorities autonomous powers. And by forging an alliance with the minorities, the provisional government hopes to erode the morale of Rangoon soldiers indoctrinated to believe they are fighting non-Burman insurgents. Now they will be fighting Burmese officials, many of whom received votes from the military in May.

And despite their party's official rejection, the Manerplaw MPs seem to have broad League support. Win Ko, an MP from Sagaing Division, says League torchbearer Aung San Suu Kyi had told the League's Central Executive Committee to "do whatever is necessary to carry out the will of the people." Many MPs resented the Committee's unwillingness to convene a parliament. The more cautious Committee members feared a backlash after the regime announced Order 1/90 in July. the vaguely worded document stated that the junta would continue as the de facto government until a constitution was drafted. It also threatened party members with arrest if they refused to comply. Despite the misgivings of some on the Committee, the League drafted the so-called Gandhi Declarition, which called for an assembly of all elected MPs by September.

That never happened. Instead, some 100 League MPs met and issued a statement denouncing Order 1/90. The document, later endorsed by about 250 MPs, after reaffirmed support for the Gandhi Declaration. At the same meeting they floated a plan to declare a provisional government in Mandalay, with or without the CEC's consent. Senior monks in Mandalay also agreed to support the proposed administration, vowing to position 5,000 clerics around the MPs on Oct. 9. After the Mandalay meeting more than 200 MPs designated seven members to represent them and take whatever action they thought necessary.

But by the first week of October the main temples in Mandalay had been surrounded by tanks, gun-mounted jeeps and hundreds of soldiers. On Oct. 18 the seven MPs cancelle dthe plan, agreeing instead to declare a government in a frontier area. Four days later Rangoon launched a massive crackdown against Mandalay monks, who were refusing to minister Buddhist rituals to military personnel. Dozens lf League MPs were jailed. Maung Ko, an executive Committee member, was allegedly tortured to death for withholding information on the monks' activities and the Mandalay meetings. At month's end, Rangoon called members of all political parties down to the National Intelligence Bureau to sign Order 1/90.

The new opposition leader did not attend the Mandalay sessions and actually opposed the plan to declare a government there. Never theless, Sein Win was still very much in the picture. The Mandalay MPs had whittled down their choice of leader to two names: Sein Win and Khin Maung Swe, a League member who was arrested in late October. Sein Win may well have been chosen even if his rival had not been jailed. His background appeals to Burmese, who judge politicians on the basis of family lineage. Sein Win's uncle was Burma's independence hero Aung San. In fact, many believe the introverted mathmatics teacher is the best the country has to offer after Aung San's outspoken daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since July 1989.

For now, the alliance between the League and the minority groups fighting Rangoon "has all the symbolic strengths and practical weakness," says one Western analyst who was in Manerplaw last week. "The forming of the alternative government is the first shift towards a workable symbiosis between the Burmese and teh minorities. This is a psychological blow. The Burmese army won't be the same." Still, in the past eighteen months Rangoon's troops have wiped out eight Karen camps along the border. And the military recently bought medium-sized tanks, anti-aircraft guns, patrol boats, short-range F-7 jet fighters and a variety of missiles and howitzers from China.

What happens next ? Not surprisingly, the members of Sein Win's government are jittery about disclosing plans. A combination of measures is being considered. These include: spreading propagands through the League's labyrinthine networks; organising civil disobedience campagns such as labour strikes; coordinating guerilla attacks against the Rangoon army with Karen, Kachin and other minority armies; gaining moral and financial support from Burmese expatriate communities and, especially, foreign governments. The Manerplaw MPs have already contacted foreign embassies in Bangkok. At least one Western embassy has pledged some financial support.

Thailand's recognition of the Manerplaw government is considered crucial. When arhit Urairat became Thailand's foreign minister in December he promised to review his country's Burma policy, which steers a careful course between respect for Rangoon's sovereignty and concern about human-rights violations. But analysts don't expect Arthit to make any drastic changes. Some Thai businessmen favour links with a democratic and free-enterprise neighbour. Other factions, including Thailand's influential military, are staunchly pro-Rangoon. Still, Bangkok has traditionally cultivated ties with all warring groups in neighbouring countries so as to maintain influence should a change in government occur.

Regardless of Thailand's position, the Manerplaw government has a hard slog ahead. If Rangoon's record is anything to go by, the junta will stop at nothing to protect its interests. The Manerplaw MPs have already been declared fugitives,a nd, according to Burma's Intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt, the regime "will take action against any one who goes against the law." Still, in his jungle stronghold Sein Win brims with determination. "We have not come here empty-handed," he says. "We came here with our program and agenda in hand and we are going to see that they are put into motion. So please rest assured. We are not sitting idle."

The Making of an Activist

The head of Burma's government-in-exile was wrestling with mathematical throry in Hamburg, Germany, whe he had his first brush with the Burmese military. Offering no explanation, the authorities told Sein Win to cut short his doctoral studies and return home. He ignored the order, and Rangoon refused to renew his passport. Finally, after nine years of studies and a stint as a restaurant dishwasher, Sein Win left Europe. He taught at Sri Lanka's colombo University and Kenya's Nairobi University. Eventually his longing to see Burma again overcame fear of reprisals.

In 1984, armed with a fake passport, he returned home. "[The military] doesn't trust anybody who has been away too long," says Sein Win. Indeed, he was interrogated, charged with illegal entry and locked up in Rangoon's infamous Insein Jail for nine months. After his release, he applied for a job at Rangoon University but never received answer because "they were afraid to have me."

In 1985 Sein Win became a part-time lecturer at the less prestigious Workers' College in Rangoon. Despite his growing antipathy towards the regime, he avoided a public rold. Not that he was a stranger to politics. His father, U Ba Win, was the older brother of Burma's independence hero Aung San. Both men were assassinated in 1947. "Morally I never accepted the military government," Sein Win explains. "But my opposition was always passive."

That changed in 1988, when the military shot thousands of prodemocracy demonstrators and shut down the universities. "There comes a point where you feel you have to do something." Sein Win says. "I couldn't sit back doing nothing." When National League for Democracy was declared a party in 1989, Sein Win signed up as a member. Shortly after, his cousin, fiery League torchbearer Aung San Suu Kyi, chose him to head the newly formed Party for National Democracy. Teh party was intended as a backup in case the military dissolved the NLD. He easily won a parliamentary seat in the May polls.

When opposition MPs chose isolated Manerplaw as the site for their provisional government, Sein Win, 47, set off for the jungle, leaving behind his wife of one year. "I said if they couldn't find another person to lead the movement I wouldn't mind," he says. "But I never dreamed of becoming prime minister." Despite his obvious reluctance to lead, he seems to have wide support. "We know why the MPs wanted Sein Win as their leader," says Mandalay representative Peter Limbin. "This man has guts."


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