In Burma, July Is Time Of Shattered Dreams

When militaries crack down on those who defend human rights, they not only repress civilians (below), they also stand ready to suppress their own (right)

FOR millions of Burmese, July is a sad month of shattered dreams. On July 20, 1989, the Burmese junta known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) subdued Burma's hope and the focal point of its democracy movement, the defiant opposition leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, by putting her under house arrest. Initially, her term of house arrest was one year. That has been extended arbitrarily three times, including an extension for another year in January. July 20, 1994, marks the fifth anniversary of her incarceration.

In May 1990, in order to appease continued public protest against military rule, the SLORC held multiparty democratic elections after allowing political parties to be formed for the first time in 26 years. The candidates of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Ms. Suu Kyi, won the elections by a landslide, capturing 80 percent of the constituencies. NLD leaders requested, unsuccessfully, to talk with the SLORC about transferring power to a new government.

On July 27, 1990, the powerful chief of military intelligence, Khin Nyunt, bluntly stated that Suu Kyi would not be released, that the SLORC was the legal government ``recognized by the UN and countries around the world,'' and that any attempt to form an interim government by the NLD would be dealt with by force.

The SLORC has managed to remain in power through a number of ploys: lifting martial law, releasing nonthreatening prisoners, holding a national convention to draw up a military-dictated constitution, entering ``bilateral'' peace negotiations with the armed ethnic rebels, launching ostensible programs of eradicating steadily increasing opium-growing and heroin export from Burma's Golden Triangle, and, above all, opening the economy to tourists and investors.

In recent months, the SLORC's military campaign against the infamous drug warlord Khun Sa in the Shan State has been seen by United States Drug Enforcement Agency authorities as one of the ``positive changes'' in Burma allowing for the revival of US aid and cooperation with the Burmese generals. This, of course, will further strengthen and legitimize the military regime of Burma.

With the help of the outside world's trade, investments, and diplomatic relations, particularly those of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), made in the name of ``constructive engagement'' to exploit the rich natural resources of Burma, the Burmese junta has been able to militarize the government. This can be seen by a simple glance at the official newspaper, The New Light Of Myanmar. It carries daily news of 27 generals recently appointed as Cabinet ministers, wearing their Army uniforms while launching development projects and coercing people to join their political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Association.

Meanwhile, most pro-democracy groups have been marginalized, and ethnic minority rebels (the Kachins, the Karens, the Karenis, and the Mons) have been forced to enter peace talks and cease-fire agreements under the assault of the Burmese Army, which is equipped with modern Chinese arms and has increased from 180,000 men to some 300,000 men since 1988. The submission of the ethnic-minority rebel groups to peace talks has been brought about by Chinese and Thai pressure on Burmese refugees at the borders.

Hotels, high rises, roads, and bridges built by the SLORC in joint ventures with Chinese, Thai, Singaporean, and South Korean firms, and hordes of Chinese goods and merchants flooding Rangoon, Mandalay, and other cities, are seen by foreign visitors as signs of prosperity and modernity. However, most visitors fail to see the new satellite towns and the plight of thousands of forcibly relocated residents, the hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees (including over 250,000 Muslims) stranded along Burma's borders, the thousands of Burmese girls and women forced to work as prostitutes across the border in the Thai brothels, and the villagers forced to donate free labor for the military campaign and the building of roads and bridges.

Now the ASEAN (lobbied by Thai Foreign Minister Prasong Soonsiri, who officially visited Rangoon in May) has invited the SLORC to be a guest at the ASEAN ministerial meeting to be hosted by Thailand. The ASEAN invitation is a de-facto recognition of the SLORC as the legal government of Burma.

In 1994, the month of July once more represents a blow to the dreams of freedom from military rule for millions of Burmese. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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