Asiaweek, 4 November 1988.
Let's Make a Deal, Says Ne Win
Furtively, the half dozen students rammed a bamboo pole into the ground edging a Rangoon street. A piece of cloth tied to the staff fluttered defiantly. The youngsters prepared to make a speech, but there was no time. A patrolling military truck was trundling towards them. The students swiftly melted into nearby houses and by-lanes. One took refuge in a hard-ware store, silently watching the troopers bring down the pole and break it into pieces. When a lieutenant asked onlookers where the demonstrators had gone, nobody seemed to know. In recent weeks, such lightning gatherings by anti-governments have become a frequent occurrence in the capital. Often the young people have only enough time to hoist a pole before the soldiers arrive. But for many Burmese, whose resentment of the ruling junta has been contained by armed forces, even that simple act has become a symbol of protest.
Rangoon's streets have not filled with massive, pro-democracy rallies since the Sept. 18 military coup by Gen. Saw Maung. But though the country has limped towards a semblance of normalcy, Ne Win, the autocrat who ruled for 26 years and is widely considered to be still in control, was said to be seeking a way out. Sources in Rangoon and Bangkok told Asiaweek that Ne Win had held two meetings in early October with ex-premier U Nu, leader of the dissident League for Democracy and Peace (LDP). The purpose, as one source put it: to "discuss in confidence several subjects, including safe passage for himself and his colleagues to a third country."
During the private tete-a-tetes at his luxurious Rangoon villa, the longtime strongman offered to transfer power to an interim government headed by U Nu in return for amnesty for himself and his cronies. Ye Kyaw Thu, secretary-general of the Washington-based Committee for Restoration of Democracy in Burma, added that he had information that Ne Win wanted U Nu to assume the prime ministership and then install him as president. "Ne Win will then propose elections under a new timetable, resign because failing health before they are held, and gain some respect before taking leave," explained Ye Kyaw Thu, now in Bangkok. "As thing stand now, no foreign country would accept a man of such ill repute."
An LDP official in Rangoon, who said U Nu was "in seclusion," insisted that no discussions had taken place. In any case, sources said no agreement was reached. but even if U Nu accepted such terms, experts reckoned it was unlikely that an amnesty for Ne Win and other top leaders would be made public immediately. They said it could unleash rioting in the streets, a situation that would topple an U Nu government. "The military would stage a coup again, and the country would be back to where it was before the transfer," observed a former Burmese politician in Rangoon. A better strategy, he said, would be to let Ne Win leave the country before forming an interim government, and wait several months before officially awarding him amnesty.
Other deals were also reportedly being discussed with U Nu. An Asian diplomat in Rangoon told Asiaweek that the LDP chief had reportedly been approached by officials of the National Unity Party, formerly Burma Socialist Program Party founded by Ne Win. He said the NUP had offered to merge with the LDP if U Nu guaranteed the safety of about 1,000 core Ne Win supporters. Although the party is widely considered to be under the patronage of the government and Ne Win, the diplomat asserted that "NUP leaders are realising they won't be able to win elections unless they merge with an opposition party." Government-proposed multi-party polls are expected sometime early next year.
For U Nu, teaming up with the NUP would be a contradictory political move. The LDP leader had vehemently opposed the elections on the grounds that they were sponsored by a ruthless regime. Indeed, most Burmese have little faith in the validity of the promised polls. But there seemed to be no dearth of political parties. By last week, 46 organisations had registered with the elections commission. The cacophony of opposition voices has disheartened some Burmese. "They are confused and upset at everybody forming parties and are looking for selfless leaders like [resistance hero] Aung San," explained a Bangkok-based compatriot.
The recent rush to sign up may not be political opportunism alone. Of late, an executive committee members of political groupings has been entitled to an extra two gallons of petrol daily, a bonanza in a city of scarcity. Car owners are otherwise given 3-4 gallons per week. For the first time in two months, new fuel supplies are coming from the Syriam refinery, which recently began operating at about half capacity.
Daily lief remains a grind. In Rangoon, prices of the stable rice shot up 25 % last week and banking was far from normal. It took half a day in a queue to obtain a token to withdraw cash. And because each bank disburses only 400 tokens daily, sometimes it is weeks before citizens can draw out money. Most irritating to many was the ubiquitous presence of rifle-toting soldiers, who often physically and verbally abused civilians. State-run radio reported last week that security forces shot dead two persons, one of them a teenage demonstrator. The military has also forced some 7,000 people, mainly students and unemployed youth, to work as its paid porters on anti-insurgency patrols. In practice this means walking in the vanguard of the troops through mine fields, and serving as a human shield. The standard payment for porters is 8 kyats ($1.30) per day, but many never see any wages.
ASIAWEEK/ 4 NOVEMBER 1988.