Nobel Prize Heartens Burmese Opposition, But Protest Unlikely

THE award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has stunned the country's repressive junta, which has steeled itself against world criticism even as it grapples with a deteriorating economy.In protest against a brutal pariah regime, the Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to the imprisoned Ms. Suu Kyi yesterday. Daughter of modern Burma's founder Aung San, Suu Kyi surged into political prominence during a shattered popular revolt in 1988 and has been under house arrest in Rangoon and isolated from the outside world for two years. Western and Burmese observers admit the award is unlikely to stir a widespread uprising in Burma, a country intimidated by political terror and torture. Three years ago, the military massacred about 3,000 protesters during a week of demonstrations in the capital, Rangoon. The junta has refused to honor the outcome of national elections in May 1990, when Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy coalition swept the polls. Instead most opposition leaders have been jailed or forced into exile. Still, the honor will be a boost to a people with little hope, diplomats say. Burmese officials "are frightened of her in almost any role she may play," a Western observer said, referring to the slight mother of two who is married to a British academic. "The power of the guns is very strong," says a Burmese dissident. "There will have to be a spark before people go back out on the streets." That spark eventually could come from mounting economic disarray resulting from years of mismanagement, widespread devastation of Burma's resource wealth, and a weakening currency. A new devaluation of the Burmese kyat could be in the offing, say Western observers. As in 1988, when demonetization helped trigger the political outrage, rampant inflation and an economic slide could stir future protests, analysts say. "That kind of economic pattern is being created again," says a Western observer. "Such a spark might trigger a reaction. It could take a very long time. Or it could be tomorrow." The junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC, has used political oppression and liquidation of Burma's rich natural resources in recent years to stay in power, Western diplomats in Bangkok say. Once known as Asia's rice bowl, Burma was plunged into virtual bankruptcy by strongman Gen. Ne Win and his "Burmese Way to Socialism." After a 26-year reign, General Win was forced to resign during the 1988 protests but still remains the force behind the junta, diplomats say. Scrambling for desperately needed foreign exchange, the regime has turned to its neighbors who resist Western calls for sanctions and are ready to buy with no questions asked. Thailand and Singapore have struck deals for timber, fish, and minerals. Most prominent are companies controlled by the Thai military, although recently economic links have been strained over pricing and concessions disputes. Since the failed coup in the Soviet Union last August, China has also given high priority to Burma, its southern neighbor. China, as Burma's major trading partner, supplies weapons and military equipment that consume most of Rangoon's foreign exchange. In exchange, Beijing taps Burma's resources as barter. Last year, the Rangoon government reported, exports were up 27 percent and foreign investment rose more than 50 percent. Western analysts say, however, the figures mask an economy hindered by a shattered infrastructure, severe fuel and power shortages, a rising trade deficit, a $5 billion debt that is 70 percent of gross national output, and slim foreign currency reserves. Officially, the Burmese kyat is fixed at six kyat to the dollar, but the black market rate can range to over 70 kyat. Relentless inflation remains worrisome for the junta. During the first half of this year, price increases averaged 60 percent. "All is not altogether well," says a Western observer. "The sheer force of the economic mismanagement will drive them into doing something on the exchange rate."

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