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Washington Post Cover

Army Rulers Tighten Iron Grip on Burma
                  Opposition Leaders Jailed, Rebels Repelled

                  By Kevin Sullivan
                  Washington Post Foreign Service
                  Monday, May 24, 1999; Page A16 

                  RANGOON, Burma?The military junta that has controlled
this isolated
                  nation for the last 11 years has sharply increased
efforts to stamp out its
                  political opposition and eradicate rebel guerrillas
from the country's remote
                  jungle regions, according to diplomats and other
analysts here.

                  In the past seven months, the government has
detained, threatened and
                  tortured opposition party members in "dramatically"
increasing numbers to
                  eliminate the opposition "once and for all," a
Western official said.

                  At least 150 senior members of the National League
for Democracy,
                  headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi,
are being held in
                  government detention centers. As many as 3,000 more
political prisoners
                  are held in Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison. The
government has forced
                  or coerced nearly 40,000 others to resign from the
opposition party in
                  recent months, diplomats said.

                  The crackdown by Burma's military rulers not only
heightens existing fears
                  among foreign democracy and human rights advocates,
but promises to
                  strain further Burma's relations with the United
States and other powers.
                  Political repression in Burma -- and evidence that
the ruling junta is
                  engaged in international drug trafficking -- has
already spurred Washington
                  to isolate the country, Southeast Asia's largest
politically and economically.

                  Relations between Suu Kyi and the junta deteriorated
in March, when the
                  government refused to grant a visa to her terminally
ill husband, British
                  academic Michael Aris, who died March 27 in England.
The government
                  said Suu Kyi should travel to Britain to visit him,
but she feared that the
                  generals would use her departure as an opportunity to
exile her
                  permanently. Without the protection afforded by her
broad international
                  support, she feared that her party would be wiped


                  In a videotape delivered in April to the the U.N.
Human Rights
                  Commission in Geneva, Suu Kyi said Burmese government
oppression had
                  "worsened greatly" in the past year on a scale that
"the world has not yet
                  grasped." She called on the United Nations to issue a
firm resolution
                  supporting human rights in Burma that would be "more
than just mere

                  "What we have suffered over the last year is far more
than we have
                  suffered over the last six or seven years," she said
on the tape.

                  While they have cracked down on Suu Kyi and her
supporters, soldiers
                  have sharply increased their campaign of burning and
looting villages in the
                  eastern hills, driving ethnic minority refugees into
Thailand in numbers that
                  alarm relief workers.

                  These minority groups have been fighting for nearly
50 years for regional
                  autonomy. Since the generals seized power in 1988,
they have negotiated
                  cease-fires with 16 groups, but guerrillas and
soldiers continue to clash
                  regularly. In recent months, officials say the
government has sharply
                  increased a systematic, village-by-village crackdown
that appears to be
                  aimed at forcibly bringing the rebel regions under
Rangoon's control for

                  Human rights officials and diplomats say the problem
is growing fastest in
                  Shan state in northeastern Burma, where the
government's military sweep
                  has left thousands dead or homeless or forced them to
flee to camps in
                  Thailand. About 120,000 Burmese refugees live in 16
camps just inside the
                  Thai border; nearly 2,000 arrived in February alone.

                  "There's definitely an intensification in the last
few months. There's nowhere
                  people can really feel secure inside now," said Kevin
Heppner of the
                  Karen Human Rights Group, which operates in Thailand
on the Burmese

                  Heppner, who travels frequently into Burma to
document cases of human
                  rights abuses, said villagers report being terrorized
by new "death squads"
                  believed to be controlled by the government's
military intelligence chiefs.
                  These squads sweep villages and conduct on-the-spot
executions of
                  "anyone who is suspected of helping the guerrillas in
any way at any time in
                  their life," he said.

                  Burma is one of the world's most closed societies.
Soldiers with shiny
                  bayonets patrol the streets, and the government bans
most journalists.
                  Those who enter on tourist visas are deported when
they attempt to
                  interview Suu Kyi or her associates. People on the
street know that talking

                  about politics with foreigners can lead to severe

                  Burma, about the size of Texas, is the largest
country in area in Southeast
                  Asia. Its 50 million people are among the world's
poorest, largely because
                  of chronic government mismanagement. Generals with no
training in
                  agriculture visit farms and tell farmers where, when
and how to plant their
                  crops, in a practice known as "leaving necessary

                  Inflation is at least 70 percent; the country has
virtually no hard currency
                  reserves. Most of the country is without power for at
least 12 hours a day,
                  forcing many homes and businesses in Rangoon to use
                  Gasoline is rationed at three gallons a day per
person. There are virtually
                  no street lights and most traffic signals do not
work. Trucks and buses in
                  the capital are relics; the fleet even includes some

                  The drinking water is largely unsafe. Most people
survive on subsistence
                  farming, but droughts, floods and the appropriation
of food by government
                  troops have led to an increase in hunger in rural

                  Foreign investment in Burma dropped nearly 100
percent from 1997 to
                  1998, largely because of the Asian financial crisis.
Investors based in
                  Thailand, Malaysia and other once-booming economies
were suddenly

                  Foreign products are rare; major companies such as
Motorola Inc.,
                  PepsiCo Inc., Heineken NV and others pulled out years
ago. McDonald's
                  is not here, but MacBurger serves up burgers with
counterfeit golden
                  arches and a vaguely familiar clown character painted
on its windows.
                  Wood pulp is the main ingredient in the fat
cigarettes almost everyone

                  At the same time, the government spent millions to
restore the Shwedagon
                  Pagoda, the historic golden temple complex in the
heart of Rangoon,
                  described by Rudyard Kipling as a "beautiful, winking
wonder." The
                  renovation took more than a ton of new gold plating,
and poor villagers
                  were asked to donate gold and jewels to adorn the
gilded spires.

                  Much of Burma's income is believed to derive from the
world's most
                  prolific heroin-producing region, the Golden
Triangle, where Burma,
                  China, Thailand and Laos come together. The Burmese
government has
                  long been a willing participant in the trade and
remains so, despite its
                  insistence that it is cracking down on drug lords,
U.S. officials said. In
                  protest, the United States and most Western nations
refused to attend an
                  Interpol drug conference held in February in Rangoon.

                  Despite the grim economic picture, the Burmese
government spends
                  roughly 40 percent of its budget on the military.
Since the generals took
                  over in 1988, the military has doubled to 350,000
troops and is building
                  toward 400,000.

                  A junta spokesman, Lt. Col. Hla Min, told reporters
last week that
                  Burma's arms purchases and force buildup in the past
decade were
                  necessary to combat ethnic rebel insurgents. "We have
been portrayed as
                  a very dangerous race of people, but before we
purchased all this
                  equipment we were one of the most poorly equipped
countries in the
                  world," he said.

                  But as the military has grown, some hospitals have
been closed to new
                  patients two days a week, and the national university
has been closed more
                  than half the time since the current rulers took

                  Last summer, Suu Kyi and her party demanded that the
                  convene parliament with the members chosen in the
1990 election, which
                  the government invalidated after Suu Kyi's party won
more than 80
                  percent of the contested seats. The government
responded to the demand
                  with a harsh new campaign, rounding up and detaining
most of the party
                  members elected in 1990. About 75 have been released,
but 150 remain in

                  The government has closed opposition party offices in
villages throughout
                  the country. Each day in the government newspaper,
the New Light of
                  Myanmar, hundreds of members of Suu Kyi's party are
reported to have
                  resigned. Officials here said the resignations are
largely the result of military
                  intimidation; in other cases, a Western diplomat
said, resignations are the
                  result of mistreatment that includes beatings, sleep
deprivation and forced

                  Despite the government's brutal tactics, even some
Suu Kyi supporters say
                  that her standoff with the junta has gotten nowhere.
They suggest that it
                  may be time for her to seek more flexible tactics.

                  "It's time for her to be pragmatic and recognize the
reality a little," said one
                  Asian diplomat in Rangoon. "When you're in the ring
with Mike Tyson, you
                  don't try to break his nose; you box clever. And
she's not boxing clever.
                  She's got to play politics a little more."
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