Burma's Tears

`I REMEMBER ... '' the Burmese student started to say. Then his eyes filled with tears and it was some moments before he could continue. He was recalling the democracy protests of August and September 1988 in Rangoon, during which a close friend marching shoulder to shoulder with him had been shot and killed. Nearly three years have passed since those events, and the images of bloodied students that filled world television screens that summer have been succeeded by others. Burma has dropped off world screens, although organizations like Asiawatch try valiantly to remind us that Burma's military dictatorship is as repressive as ever, that Burmese prisons are filled with hundreds of political prisoners from elderly intellectuals to high school students, that torture and other human rights violations continue.

On May 27 another anniversary approaches - of nationwide assembly elections that the regime had promised since the demonstrations of 1988. Campaigning was strictly controlled, but in the privacy of their voting booths, Burma's citizens overwhelmingly chose the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), not the government-backed National Unity Party (NUP). The NLD won 392 seats, the NUP just 10.

The NLD achieved its victory despite continuous government harassment of its supporters and campaign workers, and despite the house arrest under which its charismatic leader, Daw Aung San SuuKyi, had been placed in July 1989. Mrs. SuuKyi has been held incommunicado ever since.

The results of the voting surprised and discomfited the military junta. In the brief period - less than a full year - that Mrs. SuuKyi had been allowed to campaign in Burma, she had energized workers, peasants, and housewives, bringing squabbling factions into some kind of unity while preaching a gospel of non-violent protests for democracy. The junta probably calculated that silencing her would cause support for her party to wither away. They deliberately allowed a proliferation of parties and permitte d fairly honest vote-counting. The result: at least 60 percent of the voters chose democracy over dictatorship.

But while democracy's supporters celebrated in the streets, the junta quickly recovered from its initial shock. Draconian limits on speech and assembly, which had been partially lifted during the campaigning, were reimposed, and the regime arrested party officials and legislators and intimidated their supporters. To this day, the elected assembly has never been convened (it was supposed to write a new, democratic constitution) and it is almost as if the elections had never taken place.

Still, the world's democracies - the US, Europe, Japan - could have acted more effectively than they have so far. Economic sanctions imposed since the brutal repression of democracy protests in September 1988 continue. But Japanese, South Korean, Thai companies - even a few American ones - do business with Burma.

To bring home to Burma's military rulers the cost of flouting democracy and human rights, however, international pressure needs to be exercised not only on Rangoon itself but on Burma's two principal neighbors and economic partners - China and Thailand. Neither country has participated in the sanctions effort. China, in particular, has dramatically increased trade with Burma during the past two years. China has also agreed to supply Burma with 1.1 billion dollars worth of arms.

Thailand is the Burmese military's other main supporter. Even before the Feb. 23 military coup which overthrew Bangkok's elected government, relations between the Thai and Burmese military were close. Bangkok businessmen linked to Thai generals have won teak concessions from Rangoon, and Thai attitudes towards Burmese dissidents fleeing across the border have been ambivalent. It's ironic that capitalist Thailand should be competing with Communist China for economic influence over Burma.

Countries like Japan or the US are not without means of pressure on both to stop their blatant help to Burma's military rulers. But there is no consensus as to what would be the most effective way in which to exercise this pressure, or even whether pressure should be used at all. Until there is, the tears of my Burmese friend will be of little avail.

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