Military rule heightens violence on Burma's streets

The people of Burma are living through days and nights of anger and tears in their struggle for democracy. Burmese Army units fired repeatedly yesterday at students and other citizens protesting the military takeover announced by Army Chief of Staff U Saw Maung on Sunday.

Estimates of the number of casualties range from 150 to 400 killed, with many more wounded. Sporadic firing was heard even after nightfall and the start of an 8 p.m.-to-4 a.m. curfew.

Mr. Saw Maung is said to be a close associate of U Ne Win, who ruled Burma with an iron fist for 26 years until resigning in July after student-led protests.

Three opposition leaders - former brigadiers U Aung Gyi and U Tin Oo, and the daughter of the founder of independent Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, gathered for four hours yesterday afternoon. They drew up a joint statement noting that the Army takeover was not a coup but a transfer of power from one element of the ruling group to another, and appealing for democratic means to bring about change in Burma.

The opposition leaders also criticized students for placing high-school and primary-school pupils in the forefront of protest marches.

A Burmese source in Rangoon, contacted by telephone, said that the students who heard the three opposition leaders seemed inclined to accept their appeal not to continue open defiance of the Army.

But other students immediately said they would not give up their demonstrations, which violate Saw Maung's ban on meetings of more than five persons. It is not clear how these differences will be resolved.

How the majority of students decides to go is important. As of now, students are the only organized force capable of facing up to the ruling politico-military structure. After 26 years of one-party rule by Mr. Ne Win's Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), opposition leaders must depend on the students to be their shock troops.

These students, whose own leadership has only been organized for a few months, are not inclined to heed moral suasion, from no matter how respected a source, unless they see it achieving specific results - political and economic freedoms. Their weapons are for the most part banners, clenched fists, and bamboo spears, although there have been some reports of the use of metal darts and spears.

Facing them is the Burmese Army, tough and battle-tested in border wars against ethnic minorities. The Army is now having to fire at its own kith and kin, in order to - its leaders say - safeguard law and order before promised elections for a multiparty democracy.

Once before, in early August, students defied Army guns and suffered numerous casualties. Officially, 110 were killed. Unofficial counts put the total of fatalities at around 3,000. The students persisted, though, and forced out the hated U Sein Lwin, Ne Win's successor, after just 17 days in office.

A Burmese source says that at least this time, Army troops seem not to be firing point blank into crowds as they did during Mr. Sein Lwin's regime.

But fear and tension are palpable throughout Rangoon, eye-witness sources say.

Saw Maung, as defense minister and Army chief of staff, controlled the troops that fired on protesters during Sein Lwin's brief rule. There is disagreement among Burma experts as to whether, in carrying out Sunday's military takeover, Saw Maung was acting on Ne Win's orders or whether he represents a younger generation of generals, less rigidly socialist than Ne Win, more inclined to get the Army out of politics once the promised elections are held.

One of the first acts of the 19-man ruling council Saw Maung heads was to restore Burma's old name - Union of Burma - removing the words ``Socialist Republic'' which had been added by Ne Win. The council has also pledged that elections for a multiparty parliament will go ahead as planned. Burma, they promise, will no longer be ruled exclusively by the BSPP.

The problem is that these moves have no credibility, either with the students or with the urban population as a whole.

As long as the structure established by Ne Win remains in place, no matter the promises given, confrontation between the rulers and the ruled is likely to continue.

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