Burma's Silence Grows Louder

FRUSTRATED by decades of one-party rule, Burma's voters routed the country's military junta in the May 27 elections. The government has conceded defeat, but has gone mum on how or if power will be transferred. Now, nearly a month after the elections, it remains unclear whether the democratic tide sweeping parts of Asia and Eastern Europe has reached Burma. The government's silence shows that it was caught off guard by the election results. Burma's military rulers went to the polls relatively confident, and with good reason. Prior to the election, the junta outlawed meetings of more than four people, denied free speech, and prohibited criticism of either the government or the armed forces. Hundreds of party activists were arrested, while the opposition's two most prominent leaders - Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo - were detained. With the odds stacked in their favor, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which crushed the pro-democracy demonstrations in September 1988, felt there was little reason to interfere with the vote.

They miscalculated. Even with the election rigged, the military-backed National Unity Party won only 15 percent of the popular vote and no more than 10 parliamentary seats. The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won 400 of the 485 contested seats in the national assembly. The opposition even managed to secure votes from the rank and file in the military.

The landslide victory by the opposition has created a climate of apprehension rather than euphoria, since the summer of 1988 is still fresh in the minds of many Burmese. Then massive anti-government protests forced the formal resignation of Ne Win, Burma's dictator of nearly three decades. The country, so it seemed, was on the path of democratic reform until the current regime ruthlessly crushed the pro-democracy movement. Against this backdrop, a sense of foreboding pervades the country today despite the stunning victory of the opposition.

What the government has said in the wake of the election is cause for concern. The pro-government party, the National Unity Party, has protested to the Election Commission that the opposition won by fraud. It has also announced that it will not transfer power until a new constitution is approved, which they claim will take up to two years to complete. The opposition says it can be done in days.

Personal attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's most popular and influential leader, have increased as well. The government is now considering legal action against Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for nearly a year. She is accused of having ``foreign links'' - her husband is British - and maintaining contacts with the underground, charges that could prompt the government to extend her one-year house arrest order.

To halt the government's latest round of intimidation, the international community needs to act as boldly as Burma's voters. To their credit, the US is moving toward banning all imports from Burma and Japan has refused to reopen aid negotiations. Japan's stance is particularly critical since it remains Burma's major donor, providing roughly $250 million in aid a year prior to 1988.

But additional pressure from abroad is required. Having cut off aid, the country's major aid donors should actively discourage multinationals from bankrolling the current regime. Burma's government has staved off bankruptcy by opening its rich natural resource base to foreigners. In its quest for hard currency, the government sold numerous logging and fishing concessions last year, and granted nearly a dozen oil exploration licenses. Many contracts required large payments upfront, a price many multinationals were willing to pay to tap Burma's vast treasures.

This has helped sustain the financially-strapped government, which, over the past 28 years, has turned one of Asia's most productive economies into one of the world's poorest. Straddling the world's most dynamic economic region, Burma's foreign debt stands at $4 billion, while its per capita income of $200 makes the country one of the world's poorest. Once the rice bowl of Asia, Burma is no longer self-sufficient in food.

It is hardly surprising that given the chance to vote, Burma's long-suppressed people rejected the current government. The question is whether the message has fallen on deaf ears.

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