Tightening the Screws in Burma

Military regime steps up harassment of Suu Kyi's party and diplomats

Burma's military government may be preparing to clamp down further on the country's beleaguered pro-democracy movement.

Observers in Burma say that the recent arrest of Kyi Maung, vice chairman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), is the latest signal from the regime that it has no intention of ending its campaign of harassment and intimidation against the opposition.

The government, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), continues to play a series of cat-and-mouse games with NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. In the last few weeks, SLORC has prevented her from delivering her traditional weekend speeches to supporters from her compound gate, by putting up barricades. But during the week, the barricades come down. Her telephone also has been recently reconnected.

A series of attacks on Ms. Suu Kyi and two of her top lieutenants this weekend, observers say, indicate that the SLORC intends to keep up its harassment. Mobs in Rangoon, acting with apparent government approval, used fists and sticks to bash in windows and dent NLD vehicles carrying the leaders on Saturday. Suu Kyi and witnesses said government security forces stood by and did nothing during the attack.

'No longer untouchable'

Mr. Maung, the NLD's vicepresident, was released Oct. 28 after almost a week in detention following an outbreak of student demonstrations described as the most open challenge to SLORC in recent years. Maung, the elderly confidant of Suu Kyi, who appeared to be in good health, declined to discuss his time in detention other than to say he was not mistreated.

But members of Rangoon's diplomatic community are putting a different spin on the affair. "It's worrisome," says a diplomat, noting that the arrest was the first time that SLORC has detained a members of the party's top echelon since the release of Suu Kyi in July 1995 after six years of house arrest. "It means that the leadership is no longer untouchable."

The move was the latest in a series of recent measures against the NLD, which has seen its ranks decimated by arrests and resignations since Burmese generals annulled the results of 1990 elections that the pro-democracy camp overwhelmingly won. More than 250 members were arrested prior to an NLD party convention in May, and between 500 and 800 members were detained when the party attempted to hold another congress Sept. 27-29.

"What SLORC has done [recently] is to draw a new line in the sand," says the diplomat. In essence, Burma's generals have decided to enforce Law No. 5/96 issued after the May NLD congress. Among other things, it prohibits speeches or statements that "undermine the stability of the State...." Persons who violate the law can be thrown into jail for up to 20 years, while organizations can be banned and have their funds and property confiscated.

With Maung's detention, observers worry that all of these options might now be exercised against the NLD. What is considered unlikely, however, is the rearrest of Suu Kyi, who remains the opposition's most potent symbol of defiance. "They want to mute her; they don't want to make a martyr of her again," notes another diplomat in Rangoon.

Burma's diplomatic community has also been feeling the heat from the crackdown. Since Suu Kyi's release from house arrest, the envoys - almost exclusively from Western countries - have tried to keep in touch with her and her colleagues. It is "just part of the normal monitoring of Burma we undertake for our government," insists one diplomat.

"Maintaining legitimate contact with the government and legal opposition is one of the functions guaranteed to diplomats" under international law, says another.

Burma's military rulers see it differently. Over the past few months, SLORC has stepped up its campaign against what it describes in its official newspaper as "external destructive elements" and their "ax handle" accomplices.

Some of the most caustic remarks and accusations have been reserved for the United States. The former US Charge d'Affaires in Rangoon, Marilyn Meyers, who resigned from her post on Oct. 4, was said by the state media to "have kept visiting her companion woman [Suu Kyi] who was good at gossiping in English and whiling away the time gossiping, as is the nature of women."

Awaiting an American invasion

There is little sign that xenophobic warnings of an impending neocolonial invasion are registering with a public that is still sympathetic to the pro-democracy cause. In fact, they may be having the opposite effect.

During the Gulf war, notes one diplomat, Burmese asked when the US was planning to invade Burma after finishing with Iraq's dictator. The idea still resonates with some. "I like America," declares a tea shop owner in Mandalay. "I'd like America to come in here and get rid of this government."

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