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Profile : Keeping Hold of a 'Ghost' : Despite a victory for Myanmar's opposition in May elections, party leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest. The nation waits for the government to act as the first anniversary of her imprisonment nears.

July 10, 1990|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGKOK, Thailand — In the popular myth, the future of Myanmar, which the world knows as Burma, has become a struggle between two ghosts.

One is the "ghost" of Ne Win, the superstitious and often mercurial general who seized power in 1962 and proceeded to make a prosperous country into a hermit state with a bankrupt economy. Although a collection of military officers calling themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council staged a "coup" in September, 1988, Ne Win still is widely seen as the invisible hand at the helm of the country's affairs.

The other "ghost" in the myth is Aung San Suu Kyi, the 44-year-old general secretary of the National League for Democracy, whom the military has kept under house arrest since July 20, 1989.

Suu Kyi is the charismatic daughter of the nation's independence hero, Aung San, and she became a symbol of the people's opposition to three decades of military rule in Myanmar.

In a move that surprised many Western students of Myanmar as well as the opposition themselves, the military permitted relatively free elections to be held on May 27. As the results trickled in, it became clear that the National League for Democracy had won a stunning landslide victory.

According to the final returns released by the military authorities at the end of June, the league captured 396 of the 485 seats in the new National Assembly, with another four seats in alliance with the NLD. The National Unity Party, political heir to the government's tame Burma Socialist Program Party, won only 10 seats.

But despite the NLD's overwhelming victory, Suu Kyi remains a prisoner in her family home overlooking Inya Lake in Yangon (which until last year was known as Rangoon). Recent visitors to Yangon said that after the election, a detachment of soldiers set up sandbags around the perimeter of the home. She is guarded by a contingent of 300 soldiers and police stationed at pillboxes around the house. They shoo away the curious before they can approach.

Kyi Maung, who is the acting president of the league, said in a telephone interview that the NLD's first action after the election results were announced was to demand the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and about 200 other league officials who are in jail. Another prisoner is Tin Oo, the party's chairman, who is serving three years of hard labor.

"We want to get her out," Kyi Maung said. "Aung San Suu Kyi plays a role no one else can fill."

A key test of the government's intentions after the elections will come on July 20, the first anniversary of Suu Kyi's detention. When she was placed under house arrest, the government said the incarceration could last "up to one year," suggesting that the military will now be forced either to release her or renew the detention order.

In the circumstances, a renewal of house arrest is bound to be highly unpopular, and diplomats have expressed concern that it could provide the spark for renewed disturbances similar to the pro-democracy demonstrations in August, 1988, which the government ruthlessly suppressed, leaving an estimated 3,000 dead.

Gen. Saw Maung, who officially heads the military regime, warned last week that "we will not tolerate a recurrence of the 1988 situation and will not tolerate the endangerment of our three basic duties--preventing disintegration of the union, preventing disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuating national independence and sovereignty."

Saw Maung also dashed the opposition's hopes for a speedy transfer of power, saying that the drafting of a new constitution would be a long and complicated process that must be completed before the victors are allowed to take over.

A spokesman for the regime said last week that parliamentary representatives from all of the winning parties must meet on the new constitution before the army meets with them. The statement effectively ruled out early talks between the military and the victorious opposition.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi has been elevated to the status of a martyred saint by the opposition, with her plight a rallying cry for the downtrodden. Although she is cut off from all contact with her followers, rumors about her swirl through the streets of Yangon.

One story reported that the government had to keep changing the guard outside her home because Suu Kyi's charisma was so infectious (indeed, the NLD even did well in the elections at military encampments). Another report said that Suu Kyi had been forced to sell her piano to raise money because she refused to accept funds from the military to survive, even turning down the money from a government pension.

Western diplomats in Yangon said it seemed unlikely that the military would set free such a potent adversary while so much is still up in the air. They said that if negotiations on a new constitution appear to be going smoothly--in other words, not threatening to the military--she could be released.

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