One woman outwaits generals Myanmar: In the country formerly known as Burma, where the ruling military junta has no intention of relinquishing power, a 50-year-old woman tends the spark of democracy.

Sun Journal

March 14, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

YANGON, Myanmar -- The lesson in democracy begins promptly at 4 each weekend afternoon. Several thousand people gather behind barricades, eyes trained on the fence surrounding a two-story lakeside home. Traffic police, dressed smartly in pressed white coats, keep two lanes open for passing cars.

When Aung San Suu Kyi, pink orchids in her brushed-back hair and microphone in hand, appears from behind the fence, the crowd breaks into cheers and applause. For the next hour, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner gamely conducts a forum on democracy in a country run by generals.

She often answers questions, submitted in advance, about new quotas for rice farmers or the burden of inflation on pensioners, the use of forced labor to build a dam or involuntary "donations" for computers in schools.

"If we had democracy tomorrow, we would still have problems. It's just that we could talk about them openly," Ms. Suu Kyi told her listeners the other day.

"Security for our children will not come overnight with democracy. But we certainly won't have to worry about the knock on the door in the middle of the night."

Ms. Suu Kyi's remarks do not appear on television or radio or in the next day's newspapers. But a transcript lands on the generals' desks.

And a few days later, newspaper articles, written under pseudonyms, criticize the folly of "that girl," as they refer to Ms. Suu Kyi, who is 50.

Such is the uneasy standoff between the generals and the democrats in the steamy Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Eight months have passed since Ms. Suu Kyi was freed from six years of house arrest, and yet there still is no sign of national reconciliation or progress toward democracy.

Instead, the military rulers here are engaged in a broad effort to win the hearts and minds of Myanmar's 46 million people with a stage-managed constitutional conference, replete with pep rallies, and an economic boom fed by foreigners dreaming of quick profits.

The linchpin of that strategy is an ardent courtship of foreign tourists and investors. While this remains one of the world's poorest countries, traffic jams the streets around the 2,500-year-old dome of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the capital; billboards advertise Toshiba computers and Kirin beer.

An emerging elite of Burmese millionaires can be found at the yacht club, the glitzy new nightclubs or the three new driving ranges for golfers.

Ms. Suu Kyi is biding her time.

"When do we want democracy? Well, we want it now, of course," she says. "But we are not that impatient. We have other work to do, and we carry on."

Indeed, she is quietly rebuilding her political party, the National League for Democracy. Though still facing restrictions and government harassment, the party appears to have retained the support that gave it 80 percent of the vote in 1990 elections, an election that the military rulers annulled.

Although Ms. Suu Kyi calls for dialogue with the ruling junta, the junta sees no need to talk to her. The rulers, a committee of 21 generals known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, operate in what one diplomat here describes as "their own Kafkaesque reality."

And they are carefully pursuing a course designed to maintain their hold on power.

"So far, the generals haven't had to deal with Aung San Suu Kyi," says Khin Maung Thwin, a journalist. "They're selling their hopes on making things economically stable. If they do that, they figure they won't have to worry about her."

Myanmar has a history dating to the 11th century, and vast teak forests, deposits of jade and rubies and oil fields. The country, a favorite subject for English novelists and travel writers, won its independence from a century of British colonial rule in 1948.

A year earlier, independence leader Aung San, the head of a provisional government and Aung San Suu Kyi's father, was assassinated along with members of his Cabinet.

Gen. Ne Win took power in a military coup in 1962, instituting three decades of socialist policies that devastated the country's economy. Unrest forced him to step down in 1988, but the new military rulers cracked down brutally on dissent, killing an estimated 3,000 protesters and changing the nation's name from Burma to Myanmar.

That was the year Aung San Suu Kyi returned, after 28 years abroad, to lead the pro-democracy struggle. She was placed under house arrest in 1989, and, although her party won election in a landslide a year later, the junta refused to surrender power.

Led by Gen. Than Shwe, the junta remains in firm control.

Military intelligence agents continue to watch citizens and to harass and detain dissidents. Thousands have been forced to move, without compensation, for government development projects; tens of thousands have been forced to leave their jobs and work on those projects, where they have to provide their own meals and tools.

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