Burmese Politician Woos the Masses

Daughter of nation's hero on the stump organizing opposition party to support democracy. AUNG SAN SUU KYI

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BURMA's leading opposition politician stands in the back of a pickup truck. With one hand she holds a tiger orchid in her hair. With the other other she waves to the crowd. Peasants line the dusty road out of Mandalay, eager to catch a glimpse of this charismatic woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, who dares to oppose a repressive junta.

They throw garlands around her neck as she travels down yet another bumpy road in her campaign to restore democracy - and perhaps to run their country.

``Long live Aung San Suu Kyi,'' the peasants chant. If they chant anything political, they risk Army arrest for violating campaign laws.

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Political gatherings of more than 50 people are outlawed. Troops trail her entourage, watching for the slightest infraction. Harassment is common. Foreign journalists are stopped for questioning.

Supporters in her party, the National League of Democracy, pass out buttons showing a photo of her late father, Aung San, the national hero and the man who led Burma to independence before he was assassinated in 1947. The photographs include a small image of his daughter perched on the famed leader's shoulder.

But despite this political hoopla, Suu Kyi has not yet committed her party to running in the election.

At present, she says, the task is building and organizing the party to support democracy.

Even though there is a ban on political pamphlets, campaign workers hand out copies of her speeches, which call for an end to 27 years of Army rule and for fulfilling the Army's promise - following a bloody uprising last year - to hold fair elections in early 1990.

But both buttons and speeches are not enough to reach enough people quickly. The most potent tactic used during her six months on the hustings is a video camera, carried by an inconspicuous aide.

After capturing her public moves and words each day, the video tapes are copied and recopied, spreading her message into the farthest corners of Burma.

``Campaigning is expensive, and we have no money,'' says Suu Kyi, who spent most of the last two decades outside of Burma and is thus relatively unknown - except for her name.

To quickly exploit that tie, she employs an inexpensive solution: the modern technology of Japanese-made videos, ready-made to undermine the political monopoly of an authoritarian regime.

The tapes are hot sellers on Burma's well-run black market, and a challenge to the military that tightly restricts information flow in a nation of approximately 40 million people.

The regime, which bans anything but its own message on the country's only television broadcast, announced a crackdown last month on regulated video stores.

Many stores carry the tapes showing Aung San Suu Kyi, but must do so clandestinely. Demand is high. Customers are willingly to pay an amount equal to three or four days of an average daily wage. Some of the tapes include excerpts from last year's violence in Rangoon.

In a nation already fearful and divided over how to end Army rule, the tapes add to personal conflicts.

``My father won't let me bring the tape home,'' says government worker Sun Yu Din.

Her father, a retired Army colonel, is a timber exporter. He forbids any mention of Aung Suu Kyi's name in his house.

``All over Burma, families are arguing with each other,'' says Sun Yu Din. ``We now say there is one house, two bodies.''

In more ways than one, the video tapes are an affront to the Army, which itself appears divided over whether to allow a fair election to take place.

Not only do the tapes spread the popularity of Suu Kyi, they also undercut the Army's claim to rule.

Longtime strong man Ne Win first broached the idea of allowing a multiparty system last July, after 26 years of leading his country to near-economic ruin. He could not have imagined the emergence of an opposition leader more antithetical to the Army.

``It's like Jane Fonda running for American president,'' says one Rangoon-based diplomat.

Living in Britain with an English husband, Aung San Suu Kyi came back to Burma last year to visit her dying mother and quickly got caught up in a revolt that needed a civilian leader.

But her leadership does more than provide some unity to a fractured political opposition. She also challenges the military's major justification for staying in power so long - that the Army represents the legacy of her father, Aung San. Ne Win was a subordinate to Aung San during the struggle for independence.

And he, ironically, put Aung San's name on many things in Burma - currency, roads, stadiums, marketplaces.

``My father didn't build up the Burmese Army in order to oppress the people,'' says Suu Kyi, now the b^ete noire of that Army.

``He made many speeches where he specifically said, `Don't start oppressing the people just because you have weapons. You are to serve the country. You are for the country, the country is not for you,''' she adds.

She says the military should be purely professional.

As her tapes have spread throughout Burma and her claims to the legacy been made known, the government has increasingly tried to discredit Suu Kyi.

The government charges her with having active communists on her staff (she says they are ex-communists). They say she threatens the dominant race, the Burmese, by promising autonomy to other nationalities. And, among the normally xenophobic Burmese, they play up the fact that she's married to a foreigner.

``There's great tension between the regime's commitment to an election and the danger of her popularity,'' says an Australian diplomat. ``It's like walking around gasoline fumes with metal taps on your shoes.''

Unlike Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan or Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, Suu Kyi has no political experience, says government spokesman U Ohn Kyaw.

``After spending 24 or 25 years abroad, where is the legacy?'' he asks. ``If she is so much attached to the Burmese people, why should she leave the country?''

Even in the splintered opposition, she faces plenty of detractors. Many student leaders resent her taking the lead after hundreds of students were killed by the Army last August.

``She is swimming to power on the blood of students,'' says one campus organizer.

Another opposition leader, ex-general Aung Gyi, split with her in December, mainly over a personality conflict.

``She's fairly abrasive and sharp for a Burmese,'' says a European diplomat. ``But for now, she's the catalyst for democracy, although she may not be an unstoppable force.''

Many diplomats wonder if Suu Kyi enjoys the limelight so much that she might never be able to make a necessary accommodation with all - or part - of the military. Her strongest ally in the National League for Democracy is an ex-general, U Tin Oo. The two joined forces last year.

``She gains experience day by day,'' he says. ``If she doesn't understand something, she listens.''

And the more she campaigns, says Mr. Tin Oo, the more she is emerging from her father's shadow and being accepted in her own right.

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