RANGOON — `THE tallest spire burns from a fire that starts in the lowest rubbish heap,'' whispered the young Burmese, looking over his shoulder. It was his guarded way of saying political passions are smoldering in Burma, nearly nine months after the military-run regime put the lid on pro-democracy protests.
Among the fuming embers are bitter memories of last year's killings of hundreds of demonstrators by the Army.
Since March, hundreds of students have been arrested after a few anti-Army rallies. A feeling of anger and fear exists in the capital, Rangoon, with several events on the horizon that could potentially stoke unrest.
First, food costs have soared. The price of rice has increased nine-fold in two years. Rice thefts are now common. One egg costs two kjat (Burma's currency) in a country where a good wage is 12 kjat a day. Fear of hunger helped fuel the 1988 uprising.
The government claims it can handle the rice crisis with its estimated 400,000-ton surplus. It blames price rises on an unnamed foreign power which allegedly gave money to opposition figures who buy rice at exorbitant prices.
Second, this month the regime plans to reopen schools, after a year's closure. That will could make it easier for students to organize. Teachers in Rangoon have been told to sign pledges of good behavior. Many of them were on the front lines of protest last year. Authorities have removed political science as a classroom topic.
``The Burmese are angry that students were cannon fodder for the Army,'' one Western diplomat says. ``A revolt can come in a flash.''
Third, also in June, the nation's top Buddhist monks will gather, possibly to register a quiet complaint about government control.
To allow people to let off steam, the Army organizes rock concerts. Fans only slightly outnumber soldiers, who keep order by stopping any dancing, an illegal act. Youths openly taunt troops.
Army salaries went way up last year after some units defected. And in April, most of the nation's 1.2 million civil servants' salaries doubled or tripled. The regime claims the raises were overdue and will help prevent corruption. Diplomats say the government bought the support, but in the process drove up inflation.
Everyone is waiting for the first anniversary of ``8/8/88.''
That's the date last August that troops opened fire on protesters. The mayhem cooled off after Sept. 18, when the Army declared martial law.
The ``four 8's'' hold mystical awe in Burma, a land of astrology, Buddhism, and spirit worship. The numbers are also a reminder of the year 888 in the Buddhist calendar, the year a famous Burmese hero overthrew a ruthless invader.
``I've never advocated rallies, but it's bound to happen,'' says Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader of the most popular opposition party, National League for Democracy. ``The students are not going to sit and watch 8/8/88 go by.''
The lure of the Aug. 8 anniversary to stage more protests appears irresistible. One reason may be because many Burmese seem to be fed up with one-party rule and poverty and have few outlets for their frustration. Others not disturbed by totalitarian rule dislike guns pointed at them, being spied on, or a 10 p.m. curfew.
The Army, in power since 1962 under strong man Ne Win, knows it is disliked and seems to be trying its best to justify its actions. Its nominal leader is the chief of staff, Gen. Saw Maung. But the real power behind him is the head of military intelligence, Gen. Khin Nyunt. And behind them both, according to most diplomatic readings, is Ne Win.
Officially retired since last July, Ne Win has kept his hand on power by orchestrating new nominal leaders three times, each after protests got too hot.
He waited half a year after martial law was declared to make his first public appearance on March 27, Armed Forces Day. His debut showed that the Army takeover was no coup.
With the tight military clampdown, it's difficult to believe Burma is in the middle of an election campaign. A final election law is due out this month, with voting next spring. But there's mutual disillusionment among student leaders and the dozens of newly formed political parties. And, many here wonder whether the Army will allow fair elections or manipulate the fledgling parties. So far, Army rules and harassment of the campaign reveal a deep antipathy to even the thought of civilian opposition. ``They just don't trust anybody with a slice of power,'' says a European diplomat.
In an odd twist, the political parties oppose reopening the schools. They fear the military will use renewed protests as a pretext to delay or call off the election.
Uncertainty about whether the military will allow a fair election has raised speculation about factional splits within the military. The most commonly perceived split is a possible antagonism between the intelligence chief and Army field commanders. But even among the Army's nine field commanders, there may be differences over civilian rule in a multiparty state. But any overt attempt to split the Army probably would bring harsh treatment.
``The Army is the only organized institution in this country. What is good or bad for the country lies in the hand of the Army,'' says Ohn Kyaw, director general of the Foreign Ministry. There is no military disunity, he states flatly.
Tin Oo, a former general who is chairman of the leading political party, the National League for Democracy, says, ``The more they claim that they will never be split, the more it means there are signs of factionalism.''
Many middle-grade officers want to hand over power and start democracy, he says, while upper officers fear reprisals and loss of power and luxury.