Despite Junta's Gestures, Democracy Lags in Burma

Convention to set guidelines for new constitution demonstrates military's intent to hold on to power

THE national convention that began Jan. 9 in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, is meant to showcase the ruling junta's first step toward returning the country to democracy, but diplomats and opposition figures say the meeting will not result in significant reform.

Even a semblance of popular rule is years away under the timetable laid out by the military-run State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which rules the land it calls Myanmar.

The convention, which after two days of talks was adjourned until early February, is responsible for drawing up guidelines that a subsequent convention will use to draft a new constitution.

A SLORC spokesman set the tone. "To put it frankly, the maintenance of national stability, peace, and tranquility without the participation of the [military] is extremely risky and dangerous," said Maj. Gen. Myo Nyunt, the military commander of the capital, in a speech. "[For] genuine multiparty democracy to flourish, it will be necessary to work hand in hand with the military."

Most Burma watchers expect the process to be drawn out until 1994, when the SLORC would no longer have to recognize officials elected in the country's last elections in 1990, since their four-year terms will have expired.

In that election, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) stunned the military by winning more than 80 percent of National Assembly seats.

The military, unwilling to be dislodged after nearly 30 years in power, refused to recognize the elections, to which it had invited the international press, and set about to crush its opposition.

A campaign of arrests, torture, killings, and other human rights abuses has sent the opposition underground, earning the junta a pariah status the United Nations has reinforced with a number of toughly worded resolutions.

The main opposition figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, a charismatic Nobel Peace Prize laureate, remains under house arrest in Rangoon after 3 1/2 years. A convention spokesman announced Jan. 12 that the question of Ms. Suu Kyi's release would be left to the next government.

European Community ambassadors boycotted the convention opening; the United States and Australia sent observers. "They were unwilling to be seen as endorsing a process which no one expects will bring about any real change," says a Western diplomat in Bangkok. "It's a sham," says a Western ambassador in Rangoon. "They already have the constitution in the drawer."

"We think they are moving to an Indonesian-type of arrangement in which the military will be reserved, say, 200 seats in a parliament, which will ensure their dominant position," he adds.

The convention follows a series of measures taken in recent months, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the reopening of the universities after four years, the lifting of a curfew, and granting of permission for visits by Suu Kyi's British husband and their two sons.

Most observers doubt that these steps suggest real reform.

As many as 40 elected assembly members remain in prison, along with at least 1,000 other political prisoners, according to the Washington-based International Human Rights Law Group.

In December, the UN General Assembly called on Burma's rulers to release all political prisoners and to allow "the transfer of power to the democratically elected representatives" chosen in the May 1990 elections. Few expect that to happen.

"Just as there was no reason to believe that SLORC would honor the mandate of the people in 1990, there is no reason now to accept that the latest political developments would lead to a solution acceptable to the people," says Zali Maw, a Burmese opposition leader in Bangkok.

More convincing, some observers say, are the steps the junta has taken that suggest it is preparing to shake off a 30-year self-imposed isolation.

They say the moves appear to be motivated by a keener appreciation of how this once-prosperous country is increasingly falling behind its neighbors.

Last year Burma rejoined the Nonaligned Movement, agreed to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and acceded to four Geneva Conventions of 1949 that establish minimum standards of conduct in armed conflict.

They have also reached agreement with Bangladesh to accept the return of almost 200,000 Burmese Rohingya Muslims who had fled SLORC persecution, mainly in Arakan Province. The agreement is a precondition to being accepted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an economic organization.

"We must identify ourselves with some groups to further economic cooperation and development," a senior Burma foreign ministry official, U Aye, was quoted as saying recently.

But if Burma's generals are arriving at a new economic realism, it is coming slowly. Politics still dictates contradictary economic policies, which Western economists and businessmen say are unsustainable.

A recent UN Development Program (UNDP) report warned of recession and inflation, a combustible combination. Most critical, the price of rice, the country's staple, has tripled since the SLORC took over in 1988.

"If the current trends continue, they could lead to social and political instability," the UNDP study warned.

Several countries have cut off military aid and sales to Burma, including the US, although unlike Britain and Australia, the US has kept military attaches in Rangoon. But an international arms embargo, or wider trade sanctions, seem remote possibilities since Burma's main trading partners, China and Thailand, have said they would not go along.

Of particular concern is Japan. Diplomatic sources say the Japanese have encouraged the SLORC to set a timetable for reforms, enabling Tokyo to justify the resumption of development aid. Already Japan provides money for ongoing projects, an amount estimated at $100 million a year.

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