A Muzzled Opposition In Burma Takes Heart

IN the week since Burma's military released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, her followers have geared up to intensify their struggle for complete democracy.

"She is our recognized national leader," says one top student leader interviewed clandestinely, "but her release doesn't mean Burma has suddenly become democratic. We will continue organizing from below to overthrow the military."

The military junta, known as the State Law and Order Council (SLORC), jailed Ms. Suu Kyi in 1989, a year before her political party won overwhelming in national elections and prevented it from taking power.

SLORC has largely crushed organized resistance through a combination of harsh repression and clever political initiatives, according to opposition sources. However, the release of Suu Kyi will likely give new impetus to the democracy movement, they say.

"The SLORC has a very good intelligence network, and at the same time, they are very ruthless," says O Maung Maung, head of Burmese Trade Union Federation, who now lives in Bangkok. He says intelligence agents have effectively intimidated or arrested activists, making open political resistance difficult in the cities. "There is no freedom of association, no free press, no freedom of political activity of any kind," says one top political party leader still in Rangoon. "Only the students remain militant."

A student leader estimates that Burma now has 2,000 formal political prisoners. A 1994 US State Department human rights report puts the number at "500 or more." Release of all political prisoners remains a key demand of the pro-democracy forces.

Opposition leaders say harsh economic conditions within Burma, also known as Myanmar, may well spark popular resistance. Inflation was 32 percent in 1993, the latest year for which statistics are available. Workers and peasants are especially hard hit.

"Tun Tun," a part-time taxi driver in the poor Rangoon district of Thingangyun, says he earns about $50 per month to support his family of 13. Rice alone costs $30. He must pay another $3.50 for a three-room, thatch-roofed hut that has no running water or electricity. "Conditions are much worse today than they were five years ago," says Tun Tun. "It's the military's fault that the economy is bad." He says many of his fellow residents share that sentiment.

SLORC formally rejected the "Burmese Road to Socialism" in1988 and has moved toward a free-market economy. But the opposition says the economic reforms are inadequate.

The opposition enjoys political and moral support from various Western embassies, according to student leaders. When Suu Kyi held her first press conference July 11, virtually the entire staff of the US Embassy attended, along with diplomats for many other countries. The Burmese man who coordinated the press conference works for the US Embassy.

Students remain the strongest organized opposition force. Leaders of the All Burma Student Federation say they have clandestine chapters in all the major universities and colleges, and in many secondary schools throughout Burma. But in most cases, the chapters are small cells of dedicated activists. They are constantly worried about infiltration by informers. In recent months, their most daring activity in Rangoon has been to paint antigovernment slogans on walls.

But the release of Suu Kyi may change all that, according to student leaders. "SLORC succumbed to international pressure in ending her house arrest," says one leader of the student federation. "Now we will increase the pressure inside the country. We will settle for nothing less than full democracy."

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