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TENSION BENEATH THE CALM
- Subject: TENSION BENEATH THE CALM
- From: moe@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Wed, 02 Apr 1997 18:08:00
Tension beneath the calm
STRAITS TIMES 30/3
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
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
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
terminal. Today, the airport is being expanded, the city
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.
show that foreign investments totalled US$5.2 billion (S$7.2
Singapore is its biggest investor with US$1.1 billion,
followed by Britain
(US$1 billion), Thailand (US$960 million), France (US$466
Malaysia (US$446 million).
Apart from oil and gas, much of the foreign capital has gone
tourism projects, property development and light industry, all
promise to transform the economy.
Not bad for an isolated and cash-strapped junta which came to
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
yearn for deliverance from military rule.
Little of whatever good it does is appreciated, such is the
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
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
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
85 kyats in 1995. Now it exchanges for 116 kyats.
An unskilled labourer earns 90 kyats (77 Singapore cents) a
skilled workers can get 300 kyats (S$2.58). An army captain
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
"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
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
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
The prevalent feeling is that the people's lives are not
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
"We've been spoilt. The country has been spoilt. In the 26
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
Productivity is low, even among the graduates, most of whom
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
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
Myanmar language broadcasts of the Voice Of America, Radio
and the BBC, often the cause of great angst for the military
Last year, Myanmar TV ran a serial in a campaign to discredit
Kyi. Angry viewers stoned the house of the actress who
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,
deserted. Military intelligence and police officers man the
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
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
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
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
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
been arrested remain underground. Ö File picture
But beneath the surface calm, Myanmar is gripped by tension
The people are fearful of military rule, police informers and
knock on the door. The generals are, in turn, fearful that the
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
For student activists and NLD supporters, the danger of being
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
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
after our abortive trip to University Avenue.
He did not show up the next day after security officers noted
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
areas and sweeping the roads with mine detectors.
The regime, hoping to join Asean this year, wants to ensure
The Slorc leaders seem to be doing all they can to get the
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
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
doubled to 300,000 troops, and the insurgents at the border
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
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
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
other. The junta's refusal to start a dialogue with her has
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
never did anything like that. That's how they try to isolate
frighten people off.''