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World Perspective | MYANMAR

New Military Rulers Continue an Old Regimen of Repression


YANGON, Myanmar — This country has been brought to its knees by almost four decades of madcap socialism, military abuse and self-imposed isolation.

What should be one of the region's most prosperous nations--Myanmar has 80% of the world's teak forests, bountiful oil, gems, minerals and natural gas--is the flat-out poorest, a country that has known neither political nor economic development as two generations of generals enriched themselves through drugs and corruption while the Burmese became poorer and more repressed than they ever were under British colonial rule.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has a per capita annual income of $107. Its top universities have been closed for 18 months to defuse student protests. Its jails hold upward of 3,000 political prisoners. Inflation runs at 50% a year. Fuel is rationed, rolling power blackouts are common. Foreign companies--among them Pepsi-Cola Co., Apple Computer Inc. and Heineken--have fled.

Now, though, there are hints that the generals are tiring of being viewed as international pariahs and would like to polish their tarnished image, if not change their policies.

On Nov. 15, several of the most unpopular generals--who had also amassed personal fortunes--were swept aside in a palace mini-coup and placed under house arrest. They were replaced by younger, better educated men who changed the name of the ruling body from the Orwellian-sounding State Law and Order Restoration Council to the State Peace and Development Council.

Led by Khin Nyunt, 58, a previously obscure intelligence general, the council, acting through Burmese companies, hired two Washington public relations firms to recast perceptions of a country that Marco Polo described in the 13th century as having "vast jungles teeming with elephants, unicorn and wild beasts" and in which George Orwell worked as a British colonial policeman before writing "Animal Farm."

The 19-member council opened Myanmar's doors to a trickle of foreign journalists, adopted a more aggressive anti-drug policy resulting in record opium seizures and allowed the opposition, headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, 52, to hold a party congress.

At the same time, it apprehended nearly 250 intellectuals and accused them of subversive acts and conspiracies, exile sources in Bangkok, Thailand, say. The military, whose weapons' supplier is China, makes no mention of the 1990 election that it annulled after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy took 80% of the legislative seats.

"As far as I can see, there has been no improvement" in human rights, Suu Kyi said in a videotape smuggled out of Yangon, formerly Rangoon.

Because the junta operates in near-total secrecy, Western and Asian diplomats do not know what to make of the new council. It appears to have no ideology other than political stability and keeping power and no national message except asking the 50 million Burmese for patience and saying it wants foreign investors back.

The envoys believe that Ne Win, 87, the nation's supposedly retired strongman, probably was instrumental in the palace shake-up. Ne Win, a general who ended 14 years of democracy in 1962, ruled until stepping down in 1988, after pursuing Stalinist policies that shut this land to the outside and used spies to turn Burmese against Burmese. From August 1989 until September 1997, he was never seen in public. Said to be in ill health, Ne Win still relies on astrologers and surrounds himself with soothsayers and self-declared wizards.

Gen. Saw Maung, one of Ne Win's successors, gave mystical speeches about Jesus' supposed return to Tibet and retired in 1991 after a nervous breakdown. By then, Burma had changed its name to Myanmar, capitalism had replaced socialism, and a pro-democracy movement had been born, rooted in the deaths of 3,000 protesters at the hands of the army in 1988.

Suu Kyi, whose father, Aung San, led Burma to independence in 1948, became a global celebrity after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She is seen by human rights groups as a Joan of Arc fighting a cruel, corrupt regime. She was instrumental in the Clinton administration's decision last year to impose sanctions against Myanmar.

With Suu Kyi's supporters and the generals at a stalemate, and no talks occurring, Myanmar slides ever deeper into despair. The predominantly Buddhist Burmese, who seem to tolerate any misfortune with a smile and have learned that expressing political opinions is unhealthy, muddle on.

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