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Washington Post-Army Rulers Tighten
- Subject: Washington Post-Army Rulers Tighten
- From: tinkyi@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Wed, 26 May 1999 03:25:00
Subject: Washington Post-Army Rulers Tighten Iron Grip on Burma
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,
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 out.
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 words."
"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 border.
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 punishment.
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 instructions."
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 generators. 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 Studebakers.
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 areas.
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 broke.
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 smokes.
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 over.
Last summer, Suu Kyi and her party demanded that the government 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 custody.
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."