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Burma probes bombing of South Korean presidential party

By Paul Quinn-JudgeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 11, 1983



Bangkok, Thailand

In the absence of any precise information on the bombing in Rangoon Sunday, speculation about the motives for the attack is evenly divided. The bomb blast killed 19 people, among them four South Korean Cabinet ministers, several key political advisers to the President, and the South Korean ambassador to Burma. The Cabinet members were deputy prime minister, foreign minister, and ministers for energy and resources and for commerce and industry. The chief secretary to the President and the senior secretary for economic affairs were also killed.

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On one side of the speculation are those, like South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, who are convinced that the blast was the work of North Koreans. On the other side are longtime Burma-watchers who feel that any one of a dozen or so local dissident groups could be responsible.

Unofficial reports add that the Burmese government has instituted an official inquiry into the incident, to be conducted by the minister of home affairs. The government seems to have thrown a blackout over coverage of the incident.

The Burmese may be joined in their investigation by South Korean officials. The South Korean Minister of Sport, Lee Won Kyung, was reported Monday to be traveling to Rangoon to look into the affair.

The wreath laying at the Martyrs' Mausoleum, a memorial to assassinated leaders of Burma's independence movement, was to have been a purely ceremonial affair. Usually few Burmese officials attend such events, which are part of most state visits, and this suggests that President Chun Doo Hwan was himself the main target of the bomb. This apparently gives more credence to President Chun's own claims that North Koreans were responsible for the attack.

Some diplomats based in Rangoon and Burma-watchers in Bangkok disagree, however. They suggest that the bombing was the work of home-grown insurgents opposed to the government of Gen. Ne Win, who has ruled Burma since taking power by a military coup in 1962.

These observers point out that the visit was as important to Rangoon as it was to the Koreans. Burma was slowly beginning to emerge from its self-imposed isolation, they note, and the Chun trip was to be a major sign of Burma's changing view of the world. The country already had a small but lively program of Korean economic cooperation, and the presence of a number of senior economic specialists on the Korean delegation indicated that trade and aid would have been a major subject of discussion.

The diplomats also note that access to the country for foreigners - other than diplomats and a handful of Westerners who go there each year to study Buddhism - is carefully controlled and strictly limited. And, they add, the North Korean government is on good terms with Burma. In addition to diplomatic links, the two countries' ruling parties have official relations.

There is certainly no lack of suspects for the bombing in the complicated world of Burmese politics.

Violence is not unknown - as the existence of the Martyrs' Mausoleum demonstrates - and intrigue is quite common. Although Ne Win's coup in 1962 was bloodless, other coup plotters have been willing to be rougher. In the late '70s , for example, an Army officer planned to assassinate the top leadership as a prelude to introducing a more liberal regime.

Ne win is now 72 years old and says that he does not want to stay in office much longer. As he gets closer to retirement, jockeying for position is expected to become more vigorous and less polite.

The latest fallout at the top of the regime may, in fact, have contributed to the bombing, since the attack came at a time when Burma's usually highly effective - and feared - security services were probably in a state of disarray after the purge of some of their senior officials.

The minister of home and religious affairs, Min Gaung, who is conducting the investigation into the bombing, is a new boy. His predecessor, Bo Ni, a former chief of the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB), was abruptly removed from office last May. Bo Ni was accompanied in his fall by an even bigger Burmese politician - Brig. Gen. Tin Oo, reputedly Ne Win's closest confidant, possible successor and chief of security. Tin Oo was head of the military intelligence service, credited by some of its sister intelligence services in Asia with the instigation - through disinformation - of successful internal purges in the Burmese Communist Party. Tin Oo was former head of NIB.

Both men were accused of corruption and are awaiting trial. A further purge of military and intelligence men was expected to follow their removal from office, with obvious damage to the morale and efficacy of the security organs.

The government needs an effective security organization, as a large part of eastern Burma is controlled by a variety of groups in armed rebellion against the government.

In addition to the Burmese Communist Party, which has an armed wing of some 12,000, there are about a dozen other groups, fighting the central government variously for autonomy, secession, or a larger slice of the narcotics trade.

Some of the groups, such as the Karens, an ethnic minority in southeastern Burma with 3,000 to 4,000 guerrillas, and the Kachins in the east with even more armed men, are tough and determined in their fight for autonomy.