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Asiaweek, 10 February 1989

The Waiting Game

When is an election campaign not a campaign? Answer: When it is held in Burma. Gen. Saw Maung, who seized power in a military coup Sept. 18, has promised free and fair elections. but no date has been set, and many observers believe they will not be held before 1990. That has not stopped the parties -- 183 at last count -- from preparing, and in effect, beginning their campaigns. The purpose is more to make the public aware of their existence than to espouse policy. Says one Asian diplomat in Rangoon: "I don't know what kind of policies the parties have formed. All the programs so far tell you nothing."

By common consent, the most popular party is the National League for Democracy (NLD) whose general secretary is charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, 43, daughter of Burma's assassinated Independence hero, Gen. Aung San. Protected by a team of saffron-jacketed youths, Suu Kyi won considerable respect for taking her message on a thirteen-day tour of the Irrawaddy Delta region, completed last week. The most populous of Burma's fourteen states and divisions, Irrawaddy Division comes under Southwest commander Brig.-Gen. Myint Aung, reputedly the most anti-democratic of the country's nine regional military commanders. He is said to have declared: "You can forget about democracy. Even if you have an elected government, we will stage a coup again."

Nonetheless, Aung San Suu Kyi plunged in. Dressed in traditional blouse and long skirt, with a small posy of white flowers in her hair, she was besieged by crowds everywhere, according to her supporters. Videotapes of previous upcountry trips have shown she indeed has strong pulling power. She speaks forcefully and articulately, reminding listerners of her father's style. She has also shown physical courage. At Myaungmya, deep in the Delta, troops fired three shots in the air as her riverboat approached the pier. Disembarking, she cooly asked the soldiers: "Only three shots? Why not 21?" Insiders say that before leaving Rangoon, she left written instructions in case of her assassination. Her British husband and two sons are in England. Long resident overseas, she returned to Burma last year to care for her ailing mother and became swept up in the popular revolt.

The NLD central committee member Moe Thu, Suu Kyi's message is that "the people must be united." Yet unity -- or lack of it -- is cited by the government as a reason for not yet holding elections. The official Working People's Daily said on Jan. 25: "Disunity among the political parties will cause trouble to themselves, to the country and to the people." Retired General Aung Gyi, who broke with Aung San Suu Kyi in December to form his own party, himself recently campaigned in Irrawqddy. Suu Kyi's faction has also had disagreements with supporters of her prominent partymate, Tin U.

To the parties, however, the biggest problem is the government's own martial law regulations, particularly Section 5, which forbids gatherings of more than five people. During Suu Kyi's Irrawaddy campaign, about 35 of her retinue were apprehended under Section 5. All told, some 50-60 NLD members have been detained, the party says. Than Sein, secretary of former premier U Nu's League for Democracy and Peace, adds that more than a dozen of his party officials have been taken into custody. The opposition also complains of travel restrictions, the 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew, curbs on political signs, and the requirement that all publicity material be vetted. Saw Maung indicated to Asiaweek recently that the restrictions would later be loosened, including allowing oppositionists television and radio time.

Meanwhile, his regime has been bolstered by success against Karen insurgents. The rebels' position at Mae Ta Waw was retaken by government fordces in December and the key Kler Day camp overrun in mid-January. The Karen HQ at Manaplaw may even come under threat, especially with Rangoon planning a new road to facilitate the offensive. More tan 1,000 civilians have reportedly fled to Thailand to avoid forcible conscription in the road-building program.


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