For two months, Burma's political agony has been a cycle of woo and woe, apparently plotted by longtime ruler U Ne Win. The cycle began July 23 when Mr. Ne Win contritely stepped down in hopes of ending urban unrest. But then a loyal military subordinate, U Sein Lwin, took over and led a violent attack on protesters for 17 days. That failed.
He was replaced by a lawyer-civilian, U Maung Maung, a Ne Win ally who tried to woo raging city-dwellers with promised concessions, such as a multiparty election by year's end. The offers were spurned.
The Army chief of staff and defense minister, Gen. Saw Maung, then staged a coup-like takeover last Sunday. His troops opened fire on demonstrators on Monday and Tuesday.
``The regime is blowing hot and cold,'' says a Rangoon-based Western diplomat. ``We see no end to the cycle of violence soon.''
One reason for this carrot-and-stick tactic, several diplomats say, was to flush out the more radical underground student leaders who have caused the most trouble for the regime, which brands them as ``unscrupulous covert saboteurs.'' While not totally united, these leaders have organized massive protests and taken over entire streets and government offices. So far, they have stayed underground.
``We're seeing Burma's own style of revolution,'' says a Burmese who lives abroad but visited his homeland last week. ``It's very slow, with actions that are both hard and soft.''
The students also spread rumors that large elements of the disciplined 180,000-man military were defecting. While largely untrue, the rumor- mongering irritated General Saw Maung. He ordered the Army to shoot distributors of such ``false propaganda.'' He made pleas to the military in radio broadcasts, making sure to announce that soldiers would be receiving their regular pay. Early last month, he appealed to Burma's top Buddhist monks to help the government maintain order, perhaps a sign that the military was worried.
Saw Maung had warned the people not to try to break up the defense forces, because ``then the state can lose its independence and the people will have to face grave dangers that cannot be foreseen.''
Those dangers include a possible breakup of the country along ethnic lines. For more than three decades, the ethnic Burmese have dominated the government, fighting a civil war against various ethnic insurgents who control about one-third of the country.
The hidden student leaders, despite their crude homemade weapons, are now the more present danger for the Army. The new seven-member Cabinet, with Saw Maung holding three top posts including prime minister, has banned meetings of more than five people. And the military began house-to-house searches in Rangoon yesterday.
Mr. Maung Maung himself gave a hint of the impending military rule in a Sept. 11 radio broadcast, saying the Army would forcibly retake government offices that were occupied by protesters, including Buddhist monks and students
``The people are already suffering as a result of infringements against national unity and sovereignty being committed in the name of democracy,'' he said. ``They are hoping that the government will take effective action. So run, those of you who resort to force and those of you possessed by the devil, while there is still time!''
Maung Maung's whereabouts since Saw Maung took power remain a mystery.
Ne Win's hand in the encounters, however, is evident. His stature has not been diminished by his successors, and diplomats report large numbers of vehicles being seen around his villa near Rangoon just before major decisions are announced. His renown as a cunning leader since taking power in a 1962 coup has only hardened the skepticism of opposition leaders whose distrust of Ne Win runs so deep as to prevent any acceptance of a deal with the government.
Some Western diplomats and Burma scholars say the three public opposition leaders - former Gens. Tin Oo and Aung Gyi, and Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the founder of independent Burma - may have missed an opportunity by rejecting Maung Maung's offer to take part in an election. With military leaders now openly running the country after disbanding the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party, compromise is less likely.
``The demonstrators went too far, and should have known when to accept the concessions,'' says Michael Aung-Thwin, a professor at Northern Illinois University. ``They now know the military won't go over.
``The military remains Burma's main institution for young men seeking social upward mobility,'' says Dr. Aung-Thwin. ``And they see themselves as important in maintaining the state.''
The great fear is that the students will get more radical and go deeper underground, an Asian diplomat says. ``That can only mean more violence.''
The three opposition figures have largely taken to writing letters to the regime, acting as a moderating force between students and the military as they demand the formation of an interim government. They chastised student leaders for putting young pupils in the front on demonstrations, where they could be shot.
``There's too much tension between the radical students and the moderate opposition leaders,'' says the Western diplomat. ``The lack of one strong opposition leader has hurt the anti-Ne Win forces.''
Saw Maung has promised elections, but the hardening of positions make this less likely, analysts say. They note that Saw Maung represents a second generation of hardline military officers loyal to Ne Win. Saw Maung is seen as lacking the intellect to run the government himself.