Asiaweek, 23 Sept. 1988
Awaiting a Showdown
The crucial meeting was held behind a wall of barbed wire and bayonets. Days before the Sept. 10 event, truckloads of troops poured into Rangoon to reinforce contingents stationed there. Sturdy barricades were erected to key roads leading to the People's Assembly building. the entire area was declared a non-demonstration zone. The restrictions did not deter 100,000 chanting protesters from marching on towards the parliament, where some 1,000 delegates of the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) had gathered for an emergency session. As the throng neared the stately edifice, gun-toting soldiers warned then to go no further. Some monks and children promptly made their way to the front and bared their chests, challenging the troopers to either shoot or step aside. The soldiers backed off, and the crowd surged triumphantly forward, shouting the now familiar demand for democracy.
The message was received loud and clear by BSPP delegates inside. That night, the party chairman, President Maung Maung, announced the congress's decision to forgo a proposed national referendum on single-party rule and move directly to multi-party general elections to be held "in the fairest, most free manner." Rejected, however, were two key opposition demands: the dissolution of the BSPP and the creation of an interim government to oversee a smooth transition of power. The congress verdict was endorsed the next day by an extraordinary session of the People's Assembly, which voted unanimously to end 26 years of one-party rule. Of a total of 489 MPs, 454 turned up for the meeting. Since no trains were running due to the weeks-long general strike, some MPs were driven down from the provinces under military escort, using up precious fuel. Other had stayed in Rangoon since previous sessions in July and August; some had been told by their constituents not to return if they didn't vote for the people.
The assembly directed that balloting be held between six weeks and three months from Sept. 11, although it could take place later if necessary; it also named a five-man commission to supervise the polls. On radio that night, Maung maung still tried to sound tough. Referring to the near-total control of local administration by oppositionists, he told them: "You'd better run while you can." But the mood next day was defiant, though peaceful. Hundreds of thousands of disappointed Burmese, including police and armed forces personnel, turned out on the streets of Rangoon. For them, the concessions were far from sufficient. In an interview with Asiaweek, key dissident Tin U summed up their fears. "Who will conduct these fair and free elections ?" He asked. "If the BSPP is still in power, I think they won't be fair or free. The government should have announced an interim government with members of good reputation respected by the masses."
On Sept. 12 the ex-general joined with opposition figures Aung San Suu Kyi and Aung Gyi in rejecting the BSPP compromise outright. Next day, accompanied by leaders of workers', writers' and students' unions, the dissident trio met with the election commission. Tin U explained that the people neither accepted a body set up by the government nor believed that elections held by the BSPP administration would be fair. Later the three held a tete-a-tete with leaders of the All Burma Students' Union, who pressed them to come up with an interim government. The students were promised a decision within 48 hours.
Left out from the discussions was ex-premier U Nu, head of the League for Democracy and Peace (LDP), who had himself proclaimed a rival government to the BSPP on Sept. 9. Although a respected figure, U Nu angered the other dissidents by not consulting them in advance, and his attempt soon floundered. For their part, student leaders vowed to keep up the momentum of street protest until the Maung Maung administration accepted their demands in full If anything, analysts said, the government's conciliatory gesture seemed to have hardened the public mood. A western diplomat in Rangoon thought the agitations were turning more defiant. Urged one angry slogan: "If the government doesn't give in, fight." A particularly strident call came from a newly emerged body of lawyers and doctors who dubbed themselves the Supervisory Committee for coordinating the Student Movement. but students said they were unconfortable with the organisation, which has a strong leftist influence.
To add to the unrest, unsigned leaflets circulated through Rangoon on Sept. 12, threatening military shelling and aerial raids if the authorities did not immediately agree to form an interm government. The contents of the documents, purportedly issued by the vice-chief of the army and the navy, were also read over loud-speakers mounted on trucks. the military denied that either officer had issued any pamphlets, however, and said they were a ruse to drive a wedge between the soldiers and the people. The government threatened to shoot anyone spreading the report, and the streets were unusually quiet the next morning. Protests soon resumed, however.
The democracy struggle had intensified after the embattled government ignored an opposition deadline to step down by Sept. 7. The following day, more than 1 million people thronged Rangoon's streets, denouncing the proposed referendum on a multi-party system and calling for an interim government. With signs also growing of unrest in the military, the administration brought the BSPP and parliamentary emergency sessions forward by two days. Adding to the tension was U Nu's surprise announcement of a parallel government.
However, dissidents Aung Gyi and Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma's revolutionary hero, Aung San, blasted U Nu's action. "It is simply preposterous," snapped Aung Gyi. "I am astonished," said Aung San Suu Kyi. "The future of the country will be decided by the masses." As U Nu saw it, he was merely taking back the power which "was robbed from me" by Ne Win, the strongman who ruled Burma for 26 years until his sudden resignation in July. As "prime minister," U Nu named a shadow cabinet which included LDP leaders such as Brig.-Gen. Aung Shwe, Col. Saw Myint and the widely respected Tin U. By the4 next day, however, all three had resigned from the party.
It was Tin U who read the announcement of the rival government at a press conference Sept. 9. But he had clearly not known the contents for long. U Nu admitted he did not consult other opposition figures beforehand. "Why should I?" he asked. "It is not necessary. This is a legal action I am taking." His reasoning was that the 1947 constitution had never been legally abolished after Ne Win's 1962 coup ousted him from his four-year term as premier. But many believed U Nu was exploiting the chaotic situation. As the press briefing broke up, a Burmese journalist pointed a finger at the aged politician and burst out emotionally: "Your are spreading a carpet over the students' bones." The ex-premier's visage darkened by he made no reply.
U Nu's parallel government never took off. No foreign governments recognised it and street protesters hardly mentioned it. In fact, said Burma-watchers, its main impact seemed negative, sharpening difference within the fledgling dissident movement. "It didn't shatter the opposition, but it certainly hasn't helped coordination," a diplomat was quoted as saying. "The best thing that can be said about it is that it's been largely ignored." Sources said U Nu was planning to form another party to replace the near-defunct LDP.
The sputtering opposition unity, analysts noted, had clearly helped Maung Maung and the BSPP cling tenaciously to power. But for how long? While the military's top echelons still seemed firmly behind the regime, there was increasing sympathy for the demonstrators among ranks up to full colonel. Last week, the top officer of the army's Northwest command in Mandalay, 600km north of Rangoon, joined the protest movement along with his troops. The crowds at the Sept.8 rally in the capital reportedly included many low-ranking soldiers as well as some 200 blue-uniformed sailors from a naval base in Rangoon. The next day, the military tried to arrest a group of air force men who had joined a protest march in Rangoon, but students stopped the army vehicles with their bodies.
With loyal troops largely off the streets and police joining the general strike, lawlessness was reaching dangerous levels in Rangoon and other major cities. In the capital, 20 people died on Sept. 11 when neighbourhood vigilantes clashed with a band looting a biscuit factory. Food was available only at brief morning markets. Banks had been closed since late August. Rangoon was almost dry of fuel. Last week pro-opposition fuel depot workers dumped their last 135,000 liters of gasoline into the Rangoon River to prevent the military from seizing it.
Amid the chaos, apparently still manipulating the strings of government from a heavily guarded villa in Rangoon, was the enigmatic Ne Win. "He's still there," said a source. Whether the powerful ex-president would permit Maung Maung to agree to an interim administration remained unclear. But many Burmese reckoned a showdown between protesters and government was round the corner. "This situation just can't go on any longer," said one observer in Rangoon. "There will possibly be more bloodshed and it will all depend on the government. For sure the people will not stop until they get what they want."
Voices of the Streets
The unrest in Burma has spawned a lively, "mosquito" press. In Rangoon alone, there are at least 20 unofficial dailies and weeklies covering recent events in the city, including rallies and dissident speeches. Some resort to sensationalism, showing photographs of mutilated victims of the turmoil. Typically, they are four-page efforts in Burmese printed crudely on a simple press; some are handwritten. Where the eight-page government paper cost up to 1 kyat ($0.15), the newly emerging private publications commonly sell for 3 kyats, but still they are snapped up. The have names such as Our Time, People's News and Light of Dawn. Selected items from one of them, Wish News, datelined RAngoon, Aug. 29:
'Today the students were successful in forming the Students' Union. We must not rest on the success but continue to consolidate and achieve our final objective ... According to a Burmese proverb, the tiger will poach stray cattle if the herd is dispersed. So be alert, because the ferocious tiger's maul can be prevented by unity and strength. The editorial committee wishes to remind readers that the danger from the fifth columnist within is much greater than any danger from without ... Alertness will enable you to dig up the intelligence apparatus in the same way that a sharp needle penetrates thick cloth.'
'Today, participants in a peaceful demonstration in Rangoon returning to their families in other townships were faced by bus drivers who were demanding extra high fares and were overloading the vehicles .. Leaders request the bus drivers to adhere strictly to rules regarding fare and load, thereby giving support to the demonstrations for democracy.'
'AN APPEAL TO THE ARMY AND PEOPLE BY 1945 WAR VETERANS: Our wishes: Keep demonstrations peaceful. Curb your anger. Never underestimate the enemy. Search and revel the fifth columnists. Do not capitalise on the demonstrations. Do not play politics during demonstrations. No looting or arson of people's home and properties. Maintain strict control of security. Give a helping hand to needy people. Organise demonstration committees at quarter, township, division and central levels. Create and find better leaders.'
'PETROL NEWS: Petrol kiosks were closed with slogans stating they would open for filling when democracy was practiced. However, the [ruling] Burma Socialist Program Party carried petrol in drums into Rangoon from [nearby] Danidaw and Syriam petrol depots.'
Millions of bank notes were taken away by army personnel at gunpoint from officers and staff of the Treasury Department. The question in people's minds is whether it was for payment of salary to out-station army personnel or for other undisclosed reasons.'
ASIAWEEK/ 23 SEPTEMBER 1988.