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Ballots and Bullets

"Do you genuinely love your country? Are you truly considerate
of the people? And do you really want democracy? If so, walk
along the flower-strewn path laid down by the Tatmadaw [the
Burmese army]." — Working People's Daily

Dateline: RANGOON

In Burma the military junta is preparing for what it calls a "multiparty democracy general election," and government officials are assuring voters that the balloting will be "free and fair." That sounds like good news for a country that has lived for the past twenty-eight years under one of Asia's most ruthless, corrupt, and retrograde dictatorships. Unfortunately, the elections on May 27 — for an assembly that will write a new constitution — are sure to be an unadulterated fraud.

True, nearly a hundred political parties are expected to participate, which is progress. Theoretically, Burma is no longer a one-party state. But as one diplomat in Rangoon told me, "The military is determined to do whatever is necessary to stay in power." Although opposition parties can try to field candidates, the military junta reserves the right to veto them. Since the beginning of this year at least twenty-five opposition candidates have been arrested.

The Burmese government has not yet approved an election for a new head of state, but if one were held, Aung San Suu Kyi would win overwhelmingly. Suu Kyi is the dynamic, forty-four-year-old secretary-general of the National League for Democracy (the main opposition party) who galvanized mass demonstrations in 1988 and 1989 with her attacks on the dictatorship. Suu Kyi's enormous popularity is due in part to the fact that she is the daughter of Aung San — a man revered as the father of Burmese independence who was assassinated in 1947. She has been under house arrest since July, and she and the two other most prominent opposition leaders have been barred from participating in the election. The country's former prime minister, U Nu, is also under house arrest; Tin Oo, a former defense minister who is now chairman of the National League for Democracy, has been sentenced to three years' hard labor.

Those candidates allowed to participate in the election have been restrained by draconian regulations. Publications critical of the government are illegal, as are gatherings of more than five people without a permit. "Processions" and chanting of slogans on the way to or from political rallies are prohibited, and the text of any public speech must be approved one week in advance by government censors. Opposition parties have held few rallies, fearful that the government will provoke an incident and disqualify their candidates. When rallies have been announced, the government has sent in soldiers and riot police to discourage people from attending. Scores of opposition party workers have been arrested.

The government-controlled press is filled with statements ridiculing the leading opposition parties, and although the government has given each party ten minutes of free airtime, with ninety-three parties participating voters may find it difficult to keep things straight. Candidates who survive the campaign gauntlet face the prospect of a rigged vote. Foreign observers have been refused permission to monitor the election, which will be run at the local level by the military.

The junta apparently hopes the election will buy it a measure of tranquillity at home and credibility abroad. But no one will be fooled by this farce. Even if opposition candidates are elected overwhelmingly to the constitutional assembly, they will have no authority to run the country and will merely draft a framework for a future government, which the junta could postpone indefinitely. At best, the assembly is likely to become a forum for criticizing the current regime and a focal point for future anti-government activities.

Burmese officials began talking about democracy and elections in 1988, at the same time that government troops and riot police were slaughtering demonstrators who were demanding democracy and elections. Over a seven-month period, government forces massacred an estimated 1,000 men, women, and children in Rangoon and as many as 5,000 nationwide. Highlights of the mayhem included the deaths by suffocation of forty-one protesters who were crammed into a police van for four hours and an attack on doctors and nurses treating wounded protesters at the Rangoon General Hospital.

Nearly twenty months have passed since the government crushed the nationwide pro-democracy movement. During that time people around the world have been stripping off the rags of tyrannies with Dionysian abandon. Many Burmese say the only sign of change in their country since 1988 has been the name: Burma is now officially known as "Myanmar."

In fact, life in Burma has not been stagnant. For most Burmese it has gotten worse. In the midst of the slaughter in the fall of 1988, a so-called coup d'?tat was staged in which the country's top leadership reorganized into the current military junta. It called itself the "State Law and Order Restoration Council." Better known by its onomatopoeic acronym as "the SLORC," the junta sounds like some bilious, dull-witted reptile. This is not far from the truth.

Since 1988 the SLORC has consolidated one of the more grotesque police states on the planet. Hundreds if not thousands of students and peasants have been forced to serve as slave laborers and "human mine sweepers" in the army's ongoing war against ethnic insurgents living at Burma's borders. The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon estimates that there were 4,000 "politically motivated arrests" last year alone. The State Department's human rights report for 1990 also held the government responsible for the torture and deaths of students, civil servants, and opposition leaders taken into custody.

Since the fall of 1988, the government has torn down thousands of homes of the country's poorest citizens in the major cities and has moved the people to new "satellite towns." According to the Working People's Daily, these towns are being built to provide homes to people who don't have them. Removals also have been justified on grounds of beautifying Burma's cities. But when people arrive in the new towns, they frequently find there are no buildings, water, or electricity. Typically, people are given one or two days' notice and are taken from their homes between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., when a curfew is in effect. The timing is designed to discourage sympathetic crowds from gathering. Diplomatic sources say the government is relocating people, about 350,000 so far, to prevent them from precipitating or participating in future disturbances.

The man behind this fratricidal regime is presumed to be General Ne Win, who seized power in a military coup in 1962. In fact, the reclusive dictator's current role is somewhat obscure; he gave up all his official titles during the 1988 bloodbath and has since become almost invisible. But nearly everyone in Burma will tell you that Ne Win, "the great leader" or "number one," as people on the street ironically refer to him, is still in control.

When Ne Win came to power, the country was operating, somewhat fitfully, under a parliamentary system inherited from the British, who granted Burma independence in 1948. Ne Win immediately embarked on a program for transforming Burma called "The Burmese Road to Socialism." Burma became a one-man state ruled by an arbitrary, capricious leader who used terror and an enormous military apparatus to enforce his will. Ne Win closed his country off to the contagion of Western ideas, which he held responsible for the impoverishment of the Burmese people. He encouraged hatred of foreigners, particularly Chinese and Indians, whose property he expropriated, and he exploited prejudices against minority ethnic and religious groups. Even today, "long-nosed" and "hairy" foreigners, along with Communists, and Karen, Kachin, and other ethnic minorities, are blamed for the country's problems and held up to justify the expenditure of up to half of the country's budget on the military and an extensive police network. Indeed, the government's sole claim to authority rests on its 200,000-man military. Ne Win bought the loyalty of its officers with a generous system of perquisites (although younger officers and soldiers forced to fight the country's endless wars with ethnic insurgents are reportedly disenchanted).

To describe the dictatorship as "paranoid" would be an understatement. The Working People's Daily is filled with reports of Byzantine schemes to destabilize the government, many of which are traced back to events that took place thirty or forty years ago. When Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan attacked the government's stepped-up war against ethnic insurgents and students at Burma's borders, the junta responded with a nine-part series of articles that took the rebels to task for atrocities allegedly committed in 1949, and attacked the United States for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The government also has produced two recent "best sellers," which purport to expose conspiracies to topple the government. (The books are sold all over Rangoon, in Burmese and English. I saw almost no' other new books being sold anywhere in Burma.) The Conspiracy of Treasonous Mimons Within Myanmar and Traitorous Cohorts Abroad describes an attempted putsch by Burmese collaborating with "rightist forces" and foreign journalists and diplomats. The book is largely a transcript of a press conference by SLORC First Secretary Khin Nyunt, who is pictured at the front of the volume, his tired, raccoonish eyes peering through wire-rimmed bifocals, looking as if he'd been up all night torturing students. The other book, Burma Communist Party's Conspiracy to Take Over State Power, attempts to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi and to justify the 1988 bloodbath. Here Khin Nyunt argues that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is dominated by Communists who exploited her in an attempt to "grab state power." One disgruntled government bureaucrat told me, "They try to blame the unrest on the Communists. They just don't understand that this was the will of the people."

Visitors to Burma often feel as if they have entered a time warp. Indeed, residents say the country's physical appearance has changed very little over the past fifty years. The cities and towns, with their thousands of Buddhas and magical animist icons, remain largely unspoiled. For a Westerner it may be pleasant to visit a country where there are no signs advertising Coca-Cola, Nike, or anything else, no high-rise condominiums, and relatively few automobiles. But the people who have to live here do not seem grateful for this crackpot brand of socialism.

Ne Win quickly turned a country rich in natural resources, a nation that had (in 1962) the most promising economy in Southeast Asia, into an economic basket case; Today per capita income in Burma is about $200 a year. Inflation is running at more than 40 percent. Although there is no widespread hunger, there were food shortages in 1988. The official economy is effectively bankrupt. The government has stopped payment to its principal creditors. There is an extensive black market, which may account for as much as 80 percent of Burma's trade, but this generates no foreign exchange for the government.

Although the country lacks trained technicians, scientists, and administrators, the junta severely restricts travel abroad, and the universities remain closed because the government fears student demonstrations more than it fears an ignorant population. Production is stymied by a lack of fuel, raw materials, and transportation, as well as a curfew that makes it impossible to move goods at night. Most foreign aid has been cut, and foreign investors remain wary of Burma because it has no coherent investment code, banking, or legal system. The government's only significant source of foreign exchange has come from the sale of oil, mineral, timber, and fishing rights to foreign (mostly Thai) companies.

Many Burmese told me they hope the United States will stage a Panama-style invasion to liberate them. This is clearly not in the cards. Neither is the hope of many students living at Burma's border with Thailand that the United States will give them guns. The United States is openly providing humanitarian assistance ($250,000) to the students, and U.S. officials both in Rangoon and in Washington have been outspoken in condemning the dictatorship. This has given some encouragement to the democratic opposition. But with no strategic or economic interest in Burma, U.S. officials pay no price for standing on the soapbox. Where words might cost something — in pressuring the Thais and the Japanese to stop doing business that prolongs the life of the junta, or in providing asylum to Burmese students — the United States has been reluctant to speak up. In Thailand, Burmese students are under constant threat of arrest and deportation. Some of the students deported to Burma in 1988 were reportedly murdered by the government. The United Stales has provided sanctuary to Chinese students in a similar predicament, but it has been slow to act on behalf of the Burmese.

In the long run, however, Burma is not a problem that Uncle Sam can solve. In 1988 millions of Burmese took to the streets to demand "democracy." Many had little idea what that meant, other than an end. to an asphyxiating tyranny, They courageously persisted in their demand despite relentless government brutality, and they almost succeeded. Following the crackdown, thousands of students and professionals fled to Burma's borders, where they joined ethnic Karen, Mon, Kachin, and other rebels who have been at war with the Rangoon government for forty years. But during the past year the rebels and the students have suffered one defeat after another at the hands of the Burmese military. They stand no chance of toppling the dictatorship.

Nevertheless, the opposition has scored several important victories. In 1988 every segment of Burmese society joined in the anti-government protests, demonstrating that virtually the entire population loathes the dictatorship. This was a healthy beginning. Since then the opposition has recognized, for the first lime in Burmese history, that there is a confluence of interests between the ethnic minorities living in the hinterlands and the students and other pro-democracy forces in the cities. Each of these groups is demanding democracy, free elections, and a federal system that protects minority interests. Taken together, these groups represent a broad-based alternative to the dictatorship.

In 1986 the Philippine military ousted Ferdinand Marcos after he rigged a presidential election. Last year the Romanian military revolted after Nicolae Ccauscscu's security force murdered hundreds of protesters demanding democracy. Many Burmese hope that their election, a broad-based public response to the anticipated fraud, or another government-ordered blood-bath will incite the military to put an end to Burma's tyranny. It is ironic that many Burmese now look to the military, which so wantonly slaughtered civilians in 1988, as their last hope.

Alan Berlow is a freelance reporter living in Manila.

By Alan Berlow