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Making sense of Myanmar

The Japan Times: Editorial. (10 April, 1997) Thursday

Making sense of Myanmar 

The military junta that rules Myanmar, the State Law and Order Restoration
Council, has a long list of enemies. The best known is Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi,
the prodemocracy advocate and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who continues
to frustrate government attempts to present a benign face to the world
beyond its borders. Ms. Suu Kyi may be the most persistent and unyielding
but she is not alone: Communist rebels, ethnic separatists, university
students and even Buddhist monks have all challenged the regime  at times.

Recently, there are signs that SLORC faces challenges from within as well. A
series of incidents hint at divisions among the military. Given the stakes,
the emergence of such differences is not surprising. They can be
extraordinarily dangerous in a country as tightly suppressed as Myanmar,
however. They also offer opportunities for friends of that country who hope
to see the government move toward greater accommodation with democratic forces. 

Last weekend, a parcel bomb exploded in the house of Lt. -Gen. Tin Oo, the
fourth-highest ranking member of SLORC. The explosion killed the general?s
eldest daughter, but reportedly did not injure its intended target. (There
are questions about that, however, since the general was missing from a
television program broadcast Monday evening.) This was the second such
incident. Last December, two bombs went off at a pagoda only hours after a
visit by Gen. Tin Oo. Those blasts killed five people and wounded 17 others. 

The government blamed Karen separatists since they had threatened to launch
terrorist attacks after government troops overran refugee camps on the Thai
border. The Karen National Union has denied any involvement in the bombings,
and no other group has taken responsibility. The KNU has pointed a finger at
the military, claiming that only it would have the resources to get a bomb
into the house of a high-ranking official. 

That sounds like an artful dodge except for the strange events that have
been going on in Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city, where there has
been a series of attacks on Muslim mosques by Buddhist monks over the past
few weeks. No one knows what set off the violence, although there is
speculation that they were triggered by reports that a Muslim businessman
had raped a Buddhist woman. The unrest has spread to other cities. 

The government?s inability to contain the violence and reports that some of
the monks looked like soldiers in disguise have fueled suspicions that SLORC
is divided. According to one school of thought, the chief divide is between
those who want to open the country to greater foreign influence ? which
would include some political liberalization ? and those who want to stick to
the status quo. Gen. Tin Oo, a hardliner who has threatened to ?annihilate?
SLORC opponents belongs to the latter group. 

Or the attacks on Muslims might be intended to derail Myanmar?s bid for
membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and forestall the
openness that would follow. Since several ASEAN countries have Muslim
majorities, violence would deter them from making the offer. Yet another
theory is the violence is the product of resentment over a huge influx of
Chinese emigrants; since relations with China are so sensitive, the anger
had to be channeled in other directions. And finally, there are also reports
that someone looted a Mandalay pagoda when it was renovated. 

All the speculation is just that: inspired guesswork. No one knows what is
going on in Myanmar and why. All that is certain is that there are plenty of
reasons for the violence. In addition to these religious and social
tensions, there are student demands for greater freedoms, which produced
demonstrations in December, Buddhists who have protested the detention of
monks, and the Karen political leadership that has vowed to have revenge for
the offensive that has driven 85,000 refugees across the border into
Thailand. And ever present is Ms. Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy
and the specter of the election stolen by SLORC seven years ago. 

Given these grievances, the real surprise is that Myanmar has not had more
incidents like those of the last few months. A united leadership has been
essential to keeping the country from boiling over. If divisions within
SLORC are emerging, there is a chance for foreign supporters of
liberalization to join like-minded elements within the junta and push subtly
for reform. But the military has a reputation for prickly nationalism: the
utmost sensitivity and discretion is required. Unfortunately, even that
might not be enough to keep Myanmar from turning once again on its own.