Burma Junta Retains Grip a Year After Vote

CRUSHED and coopted by military overlords, Burma plays a waiting game. One year ago this week, the opponents of the Rangoon military regime swept a national election, stunning the junta and raising hopes that a quarter century of military oppression and economic devastation was at an end.

Today, Burmese at home and exiles abroad still wait.

The ruling military State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) refuses to honor the election and instead has turned the tables, tightening its grip on what was once one of Asia's most prosperous and vibrant societies.

Frustrated by the gridlock of oppression, dissidents and exiles predict that nothing short of a major spark will ignite a new uprising against the junta.

In 1988, millions of protesters took to the streets in a national movement for democracy. Army troops crushed the revolt by killing thousands of people, and forced thousands more into exile.

The opposition is pushing imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic leader of the coalition National League for Democracy (NLD), for a Nobel Peace Prize in hopes of galvanizing the military's foes and bringing new international pressure for change.

Others say the junta will not fall until the death of the elderly Ne Win, the shadowy strongman who has presided over Burma's political repression and slide into least-developed nation status.

``He still holds tight reins on power, but not as tight as before. Still, as long as he's alive, the Burmese Army will not disintegrate,'' a Burmese activist here says.

For many Burmese, the outlook is bleak. Inside Burma, the military regime has eliminated all open opposition.

A quarter of the almost 400 politicians elected last year under the NLD banner are in prison, detention, or exile.

Diplomats and dissidents say there are rumors that Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, has been moved from her mother's house, where she has been under arrest for almost two years.

Many political activists and government employees have been forced into submission through interrogation, intimidation, and ``psychological warfare,'' says one exile who is in regular contact with Rangoon.

Torture is routine, the United Nations and Western human rights organizations say, and on at least two occasions in the past year, political prisoners died after being released from custody.

According to Burmese dissidents in Thailand and Western diplomats contacted by telephone in Rangoon, daily life is a struggle to make ends meet. The prices of food and other necessities have skyrocketed.

SLORC has been able to recruit a network of informers in exchange for privileges.

Recently, after three years, the government reopened universities in Mandalay and Rangoon that were hotbeds of anti-government protests in 1988. Students, parents, and teachers have had to sign guarantees that they will behave properly and not participate in political activities.

Monasteries where troops were sent last fall to quash an uprising by defiant monks are cordoned by the Army. Eight large monasteries in Mandalay, the nerve center of the demonstrations, are barricaded by troops and surrounded by tanks and armored personnel carriers.

On the border, Burmese activists and allied ethnic insurgents that have been battling Rangoon since independence in 1948, are also feeling the pressure.

The regime has stepped up efforts to defuse the insurgencies, enticing some to lay down their arms in exchange for business deals, aid, and a share of Rangoon's lucrative exploitation of Burma's natural resources.

Other groups such as the Karens and the Mons have been forced back along the border with Thailand. The Burmese Army recently came within 10 miles of Manerplaw, the Karen headquarters and base of Burma's fledgling NLD-led government-in-exile, before being forced back, Burmese in Thailand say.

Students, who fled the 1988 crackdown and now fight alongside the ethnic rebels, also have been squeezed by Thailand, where they sought safety. Thailand, one of the few governments to establish close relations with the junta in Rangoon, has periodically forced students to return to Burma, saying they are illegal immigrants.

Thai companies, many with links to the military, enjoy lucrative concessions in fishing, logging, and gem-mining in areas controlled by the Burmese Army and ethnic rebels.

``Burma has a civil war, and Thailand can profit from that war,'' says a student leader.

``If Burma were peaceful, there would be no profits for the Thais. So they make sure it carries on,'' the student adds.

To their dismay, Burma's dissidents have also watched Western companies woo the Rangoon regime in exchange for oil-drilling and other business deals.

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