In Burma, the lull after the storm. Calm rides on picking chief acceptable to Army and protesters
Bangkok — An anxious calm has fallen over Burma's capital, report Western diplomats in Rangoon. Protesters, having forced the ouster of a new government leader last Friday, await the choice of another one by week's end.
The uneasy lull comes after last week's violent protests which led to the departure of Sein Lwin, only 17 days after the notorious Army man was given power.
His sudden downfall was a watershed for the military and ruling party, Burma experts say, and will greatly influence the tricky leadership transition in this inward-looking, impoverished nation.
``The leadership can never have the same esprit as it claimed it had,'' said long-time Burma watcher David Steinberg, who visited the country twice this year. ``They thought they could insulate the people from outside information. But they can't. The people feel the world is passing them by,'' he adds.
Sein Lwin is a close colleague of Burma's long-time ruler, Ne Win, who resigned as party chairman last month after a series of riots. Despite holding no official job, Ne Win is believed to still hold power.
A replacement is expected to be selected Thursday at a secret meeting of the military branch of the nation's only legal political party, the Burmese Socialist Program Party, to be followed Friday by a larger party meeting and then a meeting of the legislature.
The choice of a party chairman and national president acceptable to both the military and protesters will not be easy, say Burma watchers.
During his 26 years in power, Ne Win allowed no one under him to challenge him. The result is an acute shortage of leaders, especially those able to push through badly needed economic reforms announced last month.
The removal of Sein Lwin was taken as a victory by protesters, who promise to keep the heat on the government. They are demanding a multiparty system, economic relief, increased civil rights, plus retribution for Sein Lwin's role in violent repression of past protests.
In all, several hundred Burmese were killed in what began as a tea-house brawl last March that ignited riots in Rangoon. The recent protests were helped along by a widespread economic malaise and outrage at police brutality, say diplomats, who claim several hundred Burmese have been killed so far.
``The disillusionment is in virtually all segments,'' says University of Illinois scholar F.K.Lehman, who was in Burma from March to June. ``The Army and the party - the two are intertwined - thought the protesters were just disaffected students,'' he adds. ``But the Army forgot that they are related to the whole population. By staying on, Sein Lwin would have jeopardized military unity.''
Diplomats estimate only about one-fifth of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were students in the nationwide general strike held Aug. 8.
One crucial element in the protests has been the number of Buddhist monks who joined in. In a nation that strongly practices Buddhism, monks have historically played an important role when public events get very emotional, says John Ferguson, an anthropology professor at a state university in New York.
Diplomats say few monks took part in Rangoon protests last week. But reports from Mandalay, the second largest city, indicate monks there were more involved.
``When the monks finally join in,'' says Dr. Ferguson, ``that's what will turn over this government. ... Then I think the troops will not fire on them [protesters].''
The intensity of the protests were no surprise to many experts. ``An intense frustration has percolated a long time,'' says Dr. Steinberg. ``Youth can find no job possibilities and must survive on buying goods from the black market, while the elite have access to special shops.''
Economic reforms, such as more freedom for private enterprise and permission for foreign investors to link up with private firms, announced last month are being carried out as best the government can but much too slowly, say Western diplomats. Rice availability is low while prices are high. Public impatience with the government is on the rise, they say. The next rice harvest is in October.
Under Ne Win, who is said to associate free markets with colonialism, Burma withdrew into an isolated, state-run economy, while its neighbors integrated with world trade. Forty years after independence from Britain, Burma remains one of the world's poorest nations. Real wages are below those of the 1950s. Urban unemployment has been above 13 percent during this decade. And yet Burma, about the size of Texas, is a well-endowed country of teak forests, oil, gems, and other largely untapped natural resources.
Beyond a leadership change, the ruling elite will need to accept a new dependency on foreign money and technology, assuming they can overcome deep-seated suspicions of foreign influence and avoid turning the country inward again, say many Burma specialists.