Burma - By Whatever Name - Is in Trouble

IT has been a year since Gen. Saw Maung staged a bloody coup to usher in another era of military dictatorship in Burma, the land now renamed Myanmar. But aside from the name change, nothing has really changed. The same ruthless intimidation, subjugation, and violation of fundamental human rights exist as during the previous two and a half decades in which Burma has been under siege by its own army. Aping the ancient Burmese kings, Ne Win ruled Burma for 26 years as a dictatorial despot. He suppressed freedom of expression, dissent, gathering, and private enterprise in the name of the ``Burmese Way to Socialism.'' As in the Soviet Union and China, the only ``free press'' was the state-owned and operated news agencies. In Myanmar today, the only news medium remains the state-run Working People's Daily.

The much-feared Military Intelligence Service (MIS), aided by the Security Administration Committees, enforced illegal laws. This continues today with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) deploying the same MIS network aided by village, township, and district law and order councils. The nominal dissolution of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) and christening it the National Unity Party does not alter the basic structure of military autarchy.

The center and control of political power lies in the hands of army commanders. With the exception of one civilian as minister of health and education, eight other Cabinet members are army generals and commanders assuming one or more ministerial positions. The core of power and influence continues to reside with the mentor of these officials: Ne Win, together with his powerful right-hand man, Gen. Khin Nyunt (first secretary of SLORC) and his daughter, Sanda Win.

The single most powerful and generic law deployed since 1962 remains the so-called ``Law for Law and Order.'' This prohibits the assembly of five or more persons for offending public tranquillity and the government. As before the coup, the present regime has been invoking this law under different names. For example, new orders prohibit the gathering of more than four people and causing divisiveness within the ruling army or state. The regime has been using such orders to detain, arrest, and torture dissidents since September, 1988.

On July 20, 1989, the old 1975 ``Law to Protect the State from Destructionists'' was invoked to put under house arrest the most prominent and outspoken leader: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the legendary hero of Burma, Gen. Aung San and secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the strongest opposition party.

The president of the same party, Gen. Tin U, purged by Ne Win, met the same fate. Two days prior to their arrest, martial law orders were used to crush demonstrations by the followers of NLD. The justification given by Gen. Saw Maung clearly summarized the nature of his government as primarily oppressive, in that the army is subject to no other authority or organization. That is, the present military junta is above law since it is the lawmaker.

As Suu Kyi (a charismatic and courageous young woman who went on a hunger strike for two weeks after her arrest) charged, the actions and laws of SLORC are arbitrary and fascist - making a mockery of the free and fair multiparty democratic election to be held by May, 1990.

In fact, she and her party were charged with using the tactics of the outlawed Burma Communist Party. It is curious and highly ludicrous for a regime with a heritage of Marxist-Leninist cadre to indict its legitimate challengers as communist. But this again is nothing new since Ne Win repeatedly used his stance against communists inside Burma for attracting foreign aid from the West and for killing students and other political dissenters.

In the economic arena, the so-called ``Burmese Way to Capitalism'' - the policy by which Col. David Abel came to fame as the Minister of Trade, Finance, and Planning - has also been a charade. Despite the nominal legalization of trade and decontrol of rice and other agricultural products, major industries of importance remain in the hands of the state. Forestry, fishery, and gems - which have replaced rice as major earners of foreign exchange - are state monopolies.

This is evident in the fact that Colonel Abel has successfully struck teak-logging and fishing rights deals with more than a dozen countries. Among the most prominent are Thailand, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia. In June, the annual state gems emporium was attended by buyers from more than 16 countries, including the United States.

All of this serves to fortify an illegitimate regime's military might and its oppression of the Burmese people with arms financed by the free world.

Internally, however, the country is under siege by an invisible hand, a nationwide black market which used to be cynically called ``Corporation No. 23.'' The new name for this is ``the free market'' where prices are 3 to 10 times those of the state shops and cooperatives.

The price per gallon of gasoline in the black market has climbed to K100 (about $17) compared with the officially rationed price of K16. The US dollar has been trading at above K50, although the official exchange rate is set at K6.

In short, Myanmar is on the edge once again and suffering from the same old malaise - political oppression and grinding poverty under the siege of its own army.

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