POLITICS JULY 4, 1990
"Do you genuinely love your country? Are you truly considerate of the people? And do you really want democracy? If so, walk along the flower-strewn path laid down by the Tatmadaw [the Burmese army]." — Working People's Daily
In Burma the military junta is preparing for
what it calls a "multiparty democracy general election," and government
officials are assuring voters that the balloting will be "free and
fair." That sounds like good news for a country that has lived for the
past twenty-eight years under one of Asia's most ruthless, corrupt, and
retrograde dictatorships. Unfortunately, the elections on May 27 — for
an assembly that will write a new constitution — are sure to be an
True, nearly a hundred political parties are
expected to participate, which is progress. Theoretically, Burma is no
longer a one-party state. But as one diplomat in Rangoon told me, "The
military is determined to do whatever is necessary to stay in power."
Although opposition parties can try to field candidates, the military
junta reserves the right to veto them. Since the beginning of this year
at least twenty-five opposition candidates have been arrested.
The Burmese government has not yet approved
an election for a new head of state, but if one were held, Aung San Suu
Kyi would win overwhelmingly. Suu Kyi is the dynamic,
forty-four-year-old secretary-general of the National League for
Democracy (the main opposition party) who galvanized mass
demonstrations in 1988 and 1989 with her attacks on the dictatorship.
Suu Kyi's enormous popularity is due in part to the fact that she is
the daughter of Aung San — a man revered as the father of Burmese
independence who was assassinated in 1947. She has been under house
arrest since July, and she and the two other most prominent opposition
leaders have been barred from participating in the election. The
country's former prime minister, U Nu, is also under house arrest; Tin
Oo, a former defense minister who is now chairman of the National
League for Democracy, has been sentenced to three years' hard labor.
Those candidates allowed to participate in
the election have been restrained by draconian regulations.
Publications critical of the government are illegal, as are gatherings
of more than five people without a permit. "Processions" and chanting
of slogans on the way to or from political rallies are prohibited, and
the text of any public speech must be approved one week in advance by
government censors. Opposition parties have held few rallies, fearful
that the government will provoke an incident and disqualify their
candidates. When rallies have been announced, the government has sent
in soldiers and riot police to discourage people from attending. Scores
of opposition party workers have been arrested.
The government-controlled press is filled
with statements ridiculing the leading opposition parties, and although
the government has given each party ten minutes of free airtime, with
ninety-three parties participating voters may find it difficult to keep
things straight. Candidates who survive the campaign gauntlet face the
prospect of a rigged vote. Foreign observers have been refused
permission to monitor the election, which will be run at the local
level by the military.
The junta apparently hopes the election will
buy it a measure of tranquillity at home and credibility abroad. But no
one will be fooled by this farce. Even if opposition candidates are
elected overwhelmingly to the constitutional assembly, they will have
no authority to run the country and will merely draft a framework for a
future government, which the junta could postpone indefinitely. At
best, the assembly is likely to become a forum for criticizing the
current regime and a focal point for future anti-government activities.
Burmese officials began talking about
democracy and elections in 1988, at the same time that government
troops and riot police were slaughtering demonstrators who were
demanding democracy and elections. Over a seven-month period,
government forces massacred an estimated 1,000 men, women, and children
in Rangoon and as many as 5,000 nationwide. Highlights of the mayhem
included the deaths by suffocation of forty-one protesters who were
crammed into a police van for four hours and an attack on doctors and
nurses treating wounded protesters at the Rangoon General Hospital.
Nearly twenty months have passed since the
government crushed the nationwide pro-democracy movement. During that
time people around the world have been stripping off the rags of
tyrannies with Dionysian abandon. Many Burmese say the only sign of
change in their country since 1988 has been the name: Burma is now
officially known as "Myanmar."
In fact, life in Burma has not been stagnant.
For most Burmese it has gotten worse. In the midst of the slaughter in
the fall of 1988, a so-called coup d'?tat was staged in which the
country's top leadership reorganized into the current military junta.
It called itself the "State Law and Order Restoration Council." Better
known by its onomatopoeic acronym as "the SLORC," the junta sounds like
some bilious, dull-witted reptile. This is not far from the truth.
Since 1988 the SLORC has consolidated one of
the more grotesque police states on the planet. Hundreds if not
thousands of students and peasants have been forced to serve as slave
laborers and "human mine sweepers" in the army's ongoing war against
ethnic insurgents living at Burma's borders. The U.S. Embassy in
Rangoon estimates that there were 4,000 "politically motivated arrests"
last year alone. The State Department's human rights report for 1990
also held the government responsible for the torture and deaths of
students, civil servants, and opposition leaders taken into custody.
Since the fall of 1988, the government has
torn down thousands of homes of the country's poorest citizens in the
major cities and has moved the people to new "satellite towns."
According to the Working People's Daily, these towns are being built to
provide homes to people who don't have them. Removals also have been
justified on grounds of beautifying Burma's cities. But when people
arrive in the new towns, they frequently find there are no buildings,
water, or electricity. Typically, people are given one or two days'
notice and are taken from their homes between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., when
a curfew is in effect. The timing is designed to discourage sympathetic
crowds from gathering. Diplomatic sources say the government is
relocating people, about 350,000 so far, to prevent them from
precipitating or participating in future disturbances.
The man behind this fratricidal regime is
presumed to be General Ne Win, who seized power in a military coup in
1962. In fact, the reclusive dictator's current role is somewhat
obscure; he gave up all his official titles during the 1988 bloodbath
and has since become almost invisible. But nearly everyone in Burma
will tell you that Ne Win, "the great leader" or "number one," as
people on the street ironically refer to him, is still in control.
When Ne Win came to power, the country was
operating, somewhat fitfully, under a parliamentary system inherited
from the British, who granted Burma independence in 1948. Ne Win
immediately embarked on a program for transforming Burma called "The
Burmese Road to Socialism." Burma became a one-man state ruled by an
arbitrary, capricious leader who used terror and an enormous military
apparatus to enforce his will. Ne Win closed his country off to the
contagion of Western ideas, which he held responsible for the
impoverishment of the Burmese people. He encouraged hatred of
foreigners, particularly Chinese and Indians, whose property he
expropriated, and he exploited prejudices against minority ethnic and
religious groups. Even today, "long-nosed" and "hairy" foreigners,
along with Communists, and Karen, Kachin, and other ethnic minorities,
are blamed for the country's problems and held up to justify the
expenditure of up to half of the country's budget on the military and
an extensive police network. Indeed, the government's sole claim to
authority rests on its 200,000-man military. Ne Win bought the loyalty
of its officers with a generous system of perquisites (although younger
officers and soldiers forced to fight the country's endless wars with
ethnic insurgents are reportedly disenchanted).
To describe the dictatorship as "paranoid"
would be an understatement. The Working People's Daily is filled with
reports of Byzantine schemes to destabilize the government, many of
which are traced back to events that took place thirty or forty years
ago. When Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan attacked the government's
stepped-up war against ethnic insurgents and students at Burma's
borders, the junta responded with a nine-part series of articles that
took the rebels to task for atrocities allegedly committed in 1949, and
attacked the United States for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The government also has produced two recent
"best sellers," which purport to expose conspiracies to topple the
government. (The books are sold all over Rangoon, in Burmese and
English. I saw almost no' other new books being sold anywhere in
Burma.) The Conspiracy of Treasonous Mimons Within Myanmar and
Traitorous Cohorts Abroad describes an attempted putsch by Burmese
collaborating with "rightist forces" and foreign journalists and
diplomats. The book is largely a transcript of a press conference by
SLORC First Secretary Khin Nyunt, who is pictured at the front of the
volume, his tired, raccoonish eyes peering through wire-rimmed
bifocals, looking as if he'd been up all night torturing students. The
other book, Burma Communist Party's Conspiracy to Take Over State
Power, attempts to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi and to justify the 1988
bloodbath. Here Khin Nyunt argues that Suu Kyi's National League for
Democracy is dominated by Communists who exploited her in an attempt to
"grab state power." One disgruntled government bureaucrat told me,
"They try to blame the unrest on the Communists. They just don't
understand that this was the will of the people."
Visitors to Burma often feel as if they have
entered a time warp. Indeed, residents say the country's physical
appearance has changed very little over the past fifty years. The
cities and towns, with their thousands of Buddhas and magical animist
icons, remain largely unspoiled. For a Westerner it may be pleasant to
visit a country where there are no signs advertising Coca-Cola, Nike,
or anything else, no high-rise condominiums, and relatively few
automobiles. But the people who have to live here do not seem grateful
for this crackpot brand of socialism.
Ne Win quickly turned a country rich in
natural resources, a nation that had (in 1962) the most promising
economy in Southeast Asia, into an economic basket case; Today per
capita income in Burma is about $200 a year. Inflation is running at
more than 40 percent. Although there is no widespread hunger, there
were food shortages in 1988. The official economy is effectively
bankrupt. The government has stopped payment to its principal
creditors. There is an extensive black market, which may account for as
much as 80 percent of Burma's trade, but this generates no foreign
exchange for the government.
Although the country lacks trained
technicians, scientists, and administrators, the junta severely
restricts travel abroad, and the universities remain closed because the
government fears student demonstrations more than it fears an ignorant
population. Production is stymied by a lack of fuel, raw materials, and
transportation, as well as a curfew that makes it impossible to move
goods at night. Most foreign aid has been cut, and foreign investors
remain wary of Burma because it has no coherent investment code,
banking, or legal system. The government's only significant source of
foreign exchange has come from the sale of oil, mineral, timber, and
fishing rights to foreign (mostly Thai) companies.
Many Burmese told me they hope the United
States will stage a Panama-style invasion to liberate them. This is
clearly not in the cards. Neither is the hope of many students living
at Burma's border with Thailand that the United States will give them
guns. The United States is openly providing humanitarian assistance
($250,000) to the students, and U.S. officials both in Rangoon and in
Washington have been outspoken in condemning the dictatorship. This has
given some encouragement to the democratic opposition. But with no
strategic or economic interest in Burma, U.S. officials pay no price
for standing on the soapbox. Where words might cost something — in
pressuring the Thais and the Japanese to stop doing business that
prolongs the life of the junta, or in providing asylum to Burmese
students — the United States has been reluctant to speak up. In
Thailand, Burmese students are under constant threat of arrest and
deportation. Some of the students deported to Burma in 1988 were
reportedly murdered by the government. The United Stales has provided
sanctuary to Chinese students in a similar predicament, but it has been
slow to act on behalf of the Burmese.
In the long run, however, Burma is not a
problem that Uncle Sam can solve. In 1988 millions of Burmese took to
the streets to demand "democracy." Many had little idea what that
meant, other than an end. to an asphyxiating tyranny, They courageously
persisted in their demand despite relentless government brutality, and
they almost succeeded. Following the crackdown, thousands of students
and professionals fled to Burma's borders, where they joined ethnic
Karen, Mon, Kachin, and other rebels who have been at war with the
Rangoon government for forty years. But during the past year the rebels
and the students have suffered one defeat after another at the hands of
the Burmese military. They stand no chance of toppling the dictatorship.
Nevertheless, the opposition has scored
several important victories. In 1988 every segment of Burmese society
joined in the anti-government protests, demonstrating that virtually
the entire population loathes the dictatorship. This was a healthy
beginning. Since then the opposition has recognized, for the first lime
in Burmese history, that there is a confluence of interests between the
ethnic minorities living in the hinterlands and the students and other
pro-democracy forces in the cities. Each of these groups is demanding
democracy, free elections, and a federal system that protects minority
interests. Taken together, these groups represent a broad-based
alternative to the dictatorship.
In 1986 the Philippine military ousted
Ferdinand Marcos after he rigged a presidential election. Last year the
Romanian military revolted after Nicolae Ccauscscu's security force
murdered hundreds of protesters demanding democracy. Many Burmese hope
that their election, a broad-based public response to the anticipated
fraud, or another government-ordered blood-bath will incite the
military to put an end to Burma's tyranny. It is ironic that many
Burmese now look to the military, which so wantonly slaughtered
civilians in 1988, as their last hope.
Alan Berlow is a freelance reporter living in Manila.
By Alan Berlow