Fervor of Burmese protest dampened as opposition regroups

The flame of protest in Burma has been dimmed by monsoon rains, rumors of a possible coup, and a vacuum of leadership, diplomats in Rangoon report. Students, after sparking the urban revolt in March, have called for less daring demonstrations for fear of a military takeover. And emerging opposition figures have warned protesters to exercise discipline in fighting the government.

The first public opposition group was announced Monday, led by former Prime Minister U Nu, who was ousted in a 1962 coup. He and U Tin Oo, a former Army chief of staff who condoned a military coup attempt in 1976, are leaders of the Democracy and Peace Alliance, a 20-member band of elder Burmese who seek to ``secure the legitimate demands of people demonstrating for democracy.'' Other members include an ex-president, retired ministers and military officers, and the head of the Rangoon Bar Council.

Though claiming not to be an opposition party, the alliance is the first political group in 26 years to oppose the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party (BPSS). It was formed one day after Rangoon University students created the All-Burma Students' Federation, the first open coalition of student-led protest groups.

Two other opposition figures were not included in Mr. Nu's alliance. They are U Aung Gyi, a former general who helped lead the 1962 coup, and Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's national hero. Both spoke before large rallies last week.

Nu, Mr. Aung Gyi, and Mr. Tin were all once banished or jailed by long-time Burmese leader U Ne Win, who gave up all official posts on July 23 but likely retains the loyalty of the military.

``We're seeing a series of bids for power in Burma,'' one Western diplomat says. ``But none of them have caught the imagination of the demonstrators.''

Mrs. Suu Kyi, who has not lived in Burma since childhood, carries an aura from her father's name, but is considered an establishment figure, diplomats say.

The divided opposition may be one reason why the military has not clamped down on the cities, another Western diplomat says. ``The Army is still of two minds, and doesn't know who's ahead. Ne Win's still there, and he has cultivated the loyalty of the lower ranks.''

Diplomats speculate that Tin holds sway over a sizeable portion of the military, and could maneuver against Ne Win. Last Thursday, before a giant protest was planned in Rangoon, diplomats reported unusual troop movements. But rains and a bomb scare diminished the crowd.

In addition, letters circulated last week from Burma's military academy asking the Army to step in. Student leaders are said to have ``soft-pedalled'' demonstrations to prevent military retaliation.

Since then, Rangoon appears ``fairly normal,'' says a diplomat, with most stores open, buses running, and Burma Airlines resuming international flights. State-controlled newspapers reappeared after a three-day absence, even printing articles favorable to the demonstrators. But many government offices stay shut.

Also dampening the protests may be some public willingness to wait and what becomes of a Sept. 12 meeting of the BSPP Central Committee, which will decide whether to hold a national referendum on moving to a multiparty political system.

U Maung Maung, the current President appointed Aug. 19, claims the top leadership will resign if the party rejects the referendum. The new alliance, under the 81-year-old Nu, has offered to act as an interim government if that happens. Nu left Burma in 1969, later launching an unsuccessful takeover bid from Thailand. He was forgiven in 1980, and allowed to return on condition that he devote himself to studying Buddhist scripture.

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