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              Tension beneath the calm 


              Myanmar is stirring with economic activity, but all is not
             well, as Lee Kim Chew finds out. 


              MYANMAR is done with its self-imposed isolation. A sure sign
of this
              happening is the new passenger terminal at Yangon Airport that was
              opened some months ago to herald Visit Myanmar Year.

              Of all the modern facilities in the capital, this symbolises
best the
              changing outlook of the generals who rule with an iron grip a
              that was closed to the outside world for nearly three decades.

              Six years ago, there was not even a baggage conveyor belt in
the old
              terminal. Today, the airport is being expanded, the city
boasts many
              new buildings, luxury hotels, satellite television and more cars. 

                                                        A letter from Aung
San Suu Kyi

              Myanmar is in the midst of a construction boom fuelled by foreign
              investors, some starting from scratch to build new roads, wharves,
              factories and industrial parks.

              A country long neglected by foreign investors until recently,
it now stirs
              with economic activity.

              Despite being blacklisted by some Western countries for gross
              human-rights violations, the generals have succeeded in attracting
              foreign capital and creating more jobs.

              On this score, the military regime is hard to fault.
Government figures
              show that foreign investments totalled US$5.2 billion (S$7.2
billion) last

              Singapore is its biggest investor with US$1.1 billion,
followed by Britain
              (US$1 billion), Thailand (US$960 million), France (US$466
million) and
              Malaysia (US$446 million).

              Apart from oil and gas, much of the foreign capital has gone
into hotels,
              tourism projects, property development and light industry, all
of which
              promise to transform the economy.

              Not bad for an isolated and cash-strapped junta which came to
power at
              gunpoint in 1988, when the country's foreign investments then
              no more than US$450 million.

              But for all its efforts, the regime is deeply alienated from a
people who
              yearn for deliverance from military rule.

              Little of whatever good it does is appreciated, such is the
animosity it
              has earned by the political repression it has unleashed on the

              After the generals crushed a nationwide uprising against
military rule in
              1988, whatever good they do is often interred in the bones of the

              The alienation became complete when they ignored the sweeping
              victory achieved by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's
party, the
              National League for Democracy (NLD), in the 1990 general

              Further, while Myanmar appears to be experiencing an economic
              despite the political stalemate, life remains, in reality,
hard for many.

              To be sure, now there are thousands of cars, gleaming Mercedes
              Benzes as well as old NTUC Comfort taxis phased out of
Singapore roads
              when only a few years ago, traffic jams were never heard of in

              There is rapid physical change, yes, but no sense of improvement
              among the poor. 

              Inflation has soared at 30 per cent over the past few years,
and the value
              of the kyat has fallen in the black market. One Singapore
dollar fetched
              85 kyats in 1995. Now it exchanges for 116 kyats.

              An unskilled labourer earns 90 kyats (77 Singapore cents) a
day, while
              skilled workers can get 300 kyats (S$2.58). An army captain
does worse.
              He gets about 1,570 kyats a month, while a director- general of a
              government department earns 2,500 kyats.

              Government employees are given subsidies for rice, cooking oil,
              transport and free medical care, but it is still hard to make
ends meet.

              "Not everybody can steal. Only wheeler-dealers are making it good.
              They make up no more than 10 per cent of the population,'' said a
              researcher, who asked not to be named for fear of official

              It was the middlemen, he argued, not farmers, who were growing
              from higher rice prices. 

              Vendors selling tourist souvenirs are complaining of poor
business. The
              anticipated deluge of tourists has failed to materialise. 

              "Visit Myanmar Year? It's broken,'' an antique dealer complained.

              Dr Naw Angeline, director of tourism, blames it on the bad
press that the
              country is getting abroad. "Myanmar is very safe for tourists.
We need to
              promote the country more,'' she said.

              But she faces an uphill task. Not only are the air fares to
Myanmar high in
              comparison with other tourist destinations in the region, the
              stalemate that cast a pall over the country is also beyond her

              Two groups of tourists were turned away last year when the
              authorities found out they wanted a meeting with Ms Aung San
Suu Kyi
              included in the package.

              Thus, though more new hotels are opening in Yangon, room rates
              fallen in the past few months because too many rooms are
chasing too
              few tourists. 

              The prevalent feeling is that the people's lives are not
getting better.

              But National Planning and Economic Development Minister,
              Brigadier-General David Abel, sees things in another light.

              "The situation now, I think, is not bad, not bad,'' he told
The Sunday

              "We've been spoilt. The country has been spoilt. In the 26
years of
              socialism, everything was subsidised for them. 

              "They want everything free. Now with the new system of a market
              economy, they have to pay for it. They don't like it. They
still want it

              Because wages are so low, every member of a typical family has to
              work. Children help their parents sell food or carry bricks
and shovel

              Productivity is low, even among the graduates, most of whom
have few
              commercial skills and virtually no idea of modern management.

              One Singapore company employs an accountant who had 15 years'
              experience in the auditor-general's office, but cannot do
              without close supervision.

              This is an outcome of the autarky under the Myanmar way to
              It will take time, effort and new talent to get the country
really going.
              There is much catching up to do with its fast- growing neighbours.

              The New Light Of Myanmar, the state-run newspaper which serves as
              the regime's mouthpiece, runs daily stories about the generals
              ceaselessly to improve the people's lives.

              Has this helped to popularise the regime? 

              Not really, if one goes by popular reactions. People tune in
to the
              Myanmar language broadcasts of the Voice Of America, Radio
Free Asia
              and the BBC, often the cause of great angst for the military

              Last year, Myanmar TV ran a serial in a campaign to discredit
Ms Suu
              Kyi. Angry viewers stoned the house of the actress who
portrayed her
              as a treacherous villain.

              Shopkeepers at Shwedagon pagoda, the centre of religious life in
              Buddhist Myanmar, last month refused to sign a letter saying
they did not
              welcome Ms Suu Kyi.

              There was anger when the authorities put an end to the weekend
              outside her house at University Avenue last year. Her rousing
              the chanting crowds and her dialogue with the people are heard no

              Instead, University Avenue, one of the capital's main streets,
is now
              deserted. Military intelligence and police officers man the
roadblocks. No
              one can get past without permission.

              My two attempts to keep an appointment with her were foiled by
              officers who stopped me from going anywhere near the gate of her
              house. They photographed me instead.

              Her rallies, which she began after her release from six years
of house
              arrest in July 1995, had been an outlet for the people to vent
              frustrations. Now the lid has been clamped shut. 

              But the pressure continues to build up.

              When university students poured into the streets last December to
              demonstrate against the regime, the generals rolled out tanks and
              armoured carriers to disperse them.

              Some of the tanks are still parked in the city centre, a grim
reminder that
              the military is quite prepared to use force to quell social

              A rampage by monks in Mandalay and other cities this week is
              symptomatic of the underlying discontent in the country.

              The political climate has soured since Ms Suu Kyi withdrew her
              from the National Convention, which was tasked by the military
to draft a
              new constitution.

              She has condemned it as a sham because, she said, its members were
              handpicked to write a constitution that entrenches military rule.

              The intimidation and harassment of political opponents has
              since last June after the military blocked her attempt to
convene a party

              Asked to assess the mood in the country now, an Asean diplomat
              "It's a powder-keg situation.''

              Security in the capital has been stepped up after a bomb blast
at a
              pagoda in December. With heavily-armed troops patrolling the city,
              things appear under control.

              Students staging a protest ... last December's street protests
              snuffed out quickly without difficulty and student leaders who
have not
              been arrested remain underground. Ö File picture

              But beneath the surface calm, Myanmar is gripped by tension
and fear.
              The people are fearful of military rule, police informers and
the midnight
              knock on the door. The generals are, in turn, fearful that the
people will
              rise against them.

              There is widespread talk that able-bodied men are being
rounded up in
              teashops and sent to work as porters for the troops fighting the
              insurgency at Myanmar's border.

              Unlucky bystanders who watched the students demonstrate last
              December were detained, and many NLD activists have been given
              jail sentences.

              For student activists and NLD supporters, the danger of being
thrown into
              prison on trumped-up charges is very real.

              "All conversations are recorded, including this one,'' one of
Ms Suu Kyi's
              advisers warned me when I spoke to him on the telephone.

              YANGON UNIVERSITY remains closed after the authorities broke
up the
              street protests and sent the students back home to the villages.

              The people have been cowed into submission and they are easy to

              "Dangerous,'' said Mr Ya Myint, my driver, putting a hand on
his heart,
              after our abortive trip to University Avenue.

              He did not show up the next day after security officers noted
his car
              number for driving me there.

              A secretive group of 21 leading military commanders, which make up
              the State Law And Order Restoration Council (Slorc), rule this
country of
              47 million people.

              The leadership maintains a united front and the consensus among
              diplomats is that whatever internal differences there are
among key Slorc
              members are confined to tactical, not ideological, differences.

              Businessmen who deal with the generals in charge of ministries
              describe them as warlords, each guarding his turf jealously.

              Little is known about how policy decisions are taken. Requests for
              interviews are often ignored. 

              A colonel once told me: "I can't talk to you because it's no
good for me,
              no good for you, and no good for my country. So we don't talk.''

              Even friendly diplomats from Asean countries have difficulty
              access to the leadership or fathoming its thinking.

              Last year, Slorc began monthly press conferences to which foreign
              journalists were invited.

              Now there is talk that foreign correspondents will not be
invited because
              they ask troublesome questions and then flock to Ms Suu Kyi

              With her access to the foreign media curtailed severely, she
has learnt to
              play a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. She tries to
              with foreign journalists whenever they gather in town.

              But things can turn rough. Ms Suu Kyi's car was smashed by unknown
              persons last year, and it was suggested that she should not go
              anywhere near a street protest Ö for her own safety.

              A Yomiuri Shimbun correspondent, a Myanmar national, was beaten up
              and had to be hospitalised for 10 days when he covered last
              street unrest.

              Indeed, the regime tends to be heavy-handed, arrogant and
              contemptuous of its opponents.

              A Myanmar writer said: "For the past 30 years, they have shown the
              same behaviour, the same temperament and used the same methods.''

              The generals welcome businessmen, and there is no problem for
              who want to invest money so long as they stay out of the country's

              The risk they take is that of dealing with a junta which is
estranged from
              the people and which rules by the gun.

              For long-term stability, the political deadlock has to be
broken, but the
              prospect of this happening is dim.

              Said an Asean diplomat: "There's no light at the end of the

              The generals are not prepared to accord Ms Suu Kyi any status as a
              political leader. Indeed, they have hardened their stand
because they
              think she has become more provocative in consorting with Western
              countries to attack them.

              "She seems to have no new ideas except to confront the
regime,'' the
              diplomat said. "The reason for Slorc's existence is
maintenance of law
              and order. It takes a soldier's approach to problems.''

              As long as the military refuses to hold talks about political
              with her to end the stand-off, the country's future remains

              A Myanmar businessman said he saw nothing good on the horizon.

              "If we delay reconciliation, we are going to lose another
generation. The
              military cannot provide the leadership that this country needs
to get out
              of 30 years of stagnation,'' he said.

              Obviously, the generals will not hear of such heresy. They are
fond of
              pointing to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia as an object
              and the anarchy in Albania will reinforce their convictions about
              maintaining an iron grip on power.

              Visitors in Yangon now will see heavily-armed soldiers
guarding key
              areas and sweeping the roads with mine detectors.

              The regime, hoping to join Asean this year, wants to ensure
that nothing
              untoward happens.

              The Slorc leaders seem to be doing all they can to get the
country back
              into swing, and their eagerness to join Asean and open up the
              are moves that will put Myanmar on the right track.

              Sadly, however, their harsh treatment of political opponents
has created
              deep resentment and fear.

              The regime will no doubt use the gun again in the name of law and
              order, and few people now have the stomach for a repeat of the

              The military forces, disciplined and well-armed, have
virtually been
              doubled to 300,000 troops, and the insurgents at the border
states have
              been brought under control.

              In short, the military has never been stronger, and it defies
              to think of a scenario in which the generals would give up power

              "The military rules by fear because its policy is "Kill or be
killed'. That's
              why it won't give up power,'' said a critic, who is
disappointed that Asean
              is on the verge of taking the regime aboard as a member.

              He wanted his country to join Asean, but not when it was under
              rule, he said.

              There is a deep desire for political change and democratic
reforms, but
              the junta ignores it. For now, Slorc has kept things firmly
under the lid
              and it has the means to deal with trouble.

              Last December's street protests were snuffed out quickly without
              difficulty and student leaders who have not been arrested remain

              The regime's network of informers has increased, the harassment of
              political opponents continues and the people have grown even more
              afraid of the authorities. That is why a repeat of the 1988
              uprising seems unlikely for the moment.

              But the bitter political struggle continues.

              Ms Suu Kyi and the generals are obviously not communicating
with each
              other. The junta's refusal to start a dialogue with her has
sharpened their

              When I telephoned to tell Ms Suu Kyi that the security forces had
              stopped me from going to her house because they said they had not
              received her instructions to let me through, she said:

              "That's an absolute lie. They do that all the time. They also
did that to the
              Canadian ambassador. They told him that I cancelled the
appointment. I
              never did anything like that. That's how they try to isolate
me and
              frighten people off.''