THE people of Burma want and deserve a clear course away from the kind of government that has steered their country toward ruin for 26 years. That's not what they got with Sunday's military coup. The generals who took charge are yet another replay of the political structure erected by longtime dictator U Ne Win, who stepped down in July but is widely thought to retain the reins of power.
On the surface, Burma has endured four changes in leadership since Mr. Ne Win's departure. In fact, each new administration, including the ``civilian'' rule of just-deposed President Maung Maung, has sprung from the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP). The party, in turn, is inseparable from Ne Win and the military.
The Army chief, Gen. Saw Maung, seized power Sunday vowing to carry out reforms announced by U Maung Maung. Foremost among them are multiparty elections, to come once ``law and order'' are restored.
Contradictions abound here. The Army's seizure of power is more likely to hasten chaos than order. Announcement of the coup was followed by two days of street violence. Hundreds of people, many of them unarmed youths, according to the accounts of diplomats stationed in Rangoon, have been killed by troops. Strikes continue throughout Burma, and its economy, shaky at best, is virtually halted.
Things quieted on Tuesday, but no one thinks the protests can be quelled by force of arms. Repeatedly in recent weeks, Burmese have shown themselves ready to risk death to register their disgust for any government that merely puts a new face on Ne Win's political creation.
The opposition rejects the government's election plan because the voting would be organized by the BSPP. If elections are to be credible, some kind of independent electoral commission is essential. Older opposition figures have asked to meet with General Saw Maung to discuss substantive alternatives to continued violence; some student leaders are inclined to spurn negotiations.
Unity will be a key to the days ahead in Burma. Can the disparate elements of the opposition mount an organized resistance to military rule? Will the Burmese people remain unified in their willingness to brave the Army's guns and march in the streets? Will the Army's unity hold?
Older officers have a vested interest in maintaining the Ne Win system. But younger officers and soldiers could waver. Some observers suspect that mutinies could occur if troops are again ordered to fire massively on civilians.
Those outside Burma have few means of influencing events within the country. The United States is threatening a total cut-off of aid - a move that could have symbolic value but little actual impact.
For years, Burma stagnated in obscurity. Now much of the world looks on as its people struggle to shed a repressive, discredited government.